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Why the Union face perhaps their biggest challenge ever from Atlanta United

After getting routed by MLS' best team on Wednesday in Toronto, the Union now face an opponent that could build the league's next dynasty.

Atlanta United has spent unprecedented sums of money on and off the field in its debut season, and is drawing MLS’ biggest average attendance.
Atlanta United has spent unprecedented sums of money on and off the field in its debut season, and is drawing MLS’ biggest average attendance.Read moreTodd Kirkland/AP

After getting routed by MLS' best team on Wednesday, the Union now face an opponent that could build the league's next dynasty.

Atlanta United has taken MLS by storm in its debut season, and has raised the bar for expansion teams and non-expansion teams alike. It has done so primarily by spending sums of money the likes of which the league has rarely ever seen.

That spending wasn't just on player salaries, the most prominent measure of wealth. Atlanta's payroll is toward the middle of the pack at just over $8.9 million, according to MLS Players Union data.

But the team put down huge outlays on transfer fees, a part of the puzzle that is rarely in the spotlight.

Start with the MLS record $8 million spent on 23-year-old Paraguayan Miguel Almirón. That's more than the entire Union payroll this year, $7.11 million, before spending a dime on Almirón's $2.3 million salary. It's also far more than the Union's record transfer fee, $1 million to sign Alejandro Bedoya.

Venezuelan striker Josef Martínez, 24, commanded a $4.8 million transfer fee — paid after he originally came over on loan from Italian club Torino. Atlanta decided to pay the sum after he scored five goals in the first three games of the season. His salary is just over $1 million — a reasonable sum for a MLS striker.

Then there's Héctor Villalba, also 23, an Argentine winger. He was the team's first Designated Player signing. His transfer fee was over $2.5 million, and his salary is just $770,750.

"What they've done in terms of the way they've been aggressive in their building of their roster — their commitment to bringing in young, dynamic attacking players, and aggressively spending a good amount of money to bring them in — they've built a really strong team, a really exciting team," Union manager Jim Curtin said Friday.

It's no coincidence that all three of Atlanta's DPs are young South American attackers. The club's approach has been different from other teams, including the Union, who've focused their DP scouting efforts on Americans and Europeans.

That philosophy has not been lost on Atlanta midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, a Chestnut Hill Academy product who still has many family members in the region. His 12-year pro career has taken him to five MLS teams. He's never been part of something like this.

"Not on this scale, at this speed," he said. "I don't think [when] our young DPs walk down the street in Atlanta, they're going to have that off-the-field [attraction] that older European stars have had in the past. But what they're doing on the field is most important, and that was the goal. … to help us win now and help us win for several years."

That said, Atlanta isn't winning too much right now. They enter this weekend in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, and were shut out Wednesday by the East's worst team, D.C. United.

But good luck finding anyone in MLS who wouldn't follow Atlanta's path if given the opportunity. Martínez has nine goals this year, Villalba has 10 goals and four assists, and Almíron has eight goals and nine assists.

You almost certainly wouldn't find dissent in the crowds at Atlanta United games, which have been MLS' largest this season. The team drew 46,318 fans per contest to nine games at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium ahead of a move to the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 1. The soccer team will be equal co-tenants there with the NFL's Falcons, both of which are owned by Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank.

The Union are averaging 16,456 fans per game this season, well short of Talen Energy Stadium's 18,500 capacity.

Earlier this week, Curtin was asked how his team can compete with Atlanta, not just on Saturday (7 p.m., TCN) but in the long term. His response was blunt: the Union need better players.

"We have the role players in place, and maybe this offseason is a time to make a move and add some real quality players," Curtin said. "And it's a real possibility, for sure."

It would help if Union owner Jay Sugarman would open up his checkbook more than he has to date. Curtin is smart enough to not call out his boss in public, but he knows how to make the point.

"We have a really good foundation and a core group of players that will execute and do their jobs," he said Friday. "Now, in the key spots, we need to have some difference-makers in front of goal. … And now there will be, obviously, a search for some difference-makers."

Blank's largess has clearly played a big role in Atlanta's MLS debut. He hired former Tottenham Hotspur executive Darren Eales to be the team's president; former U.S. national team stalwart Carlos Bocanegra to be the technical director; and world-renowned manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino to be the team's head coach.

Martino's résumé includes coaching Lionel Messi's Argentina to the finals of the the 2015 Copa América and 2016 Copa América Centenario. Before then, he spent a season in charge of Messi's club team Barcelona, and was Paraguay's national team coach from 2007 to 2011.

"It's been impressive from day one to see," Larentowicz said. "When you see an international coach coming into the league, you always wonder if he can handle all of the nuances and the difficulties, because it's so different here. But he really has the ability to break things down and see what's happening on the field."

Larentowicz and his colleagues train at a $60 million practice facility built for them in the nearby suburb of Marietta. It has six fields and workout space for the senior team and all the club's academy teams. The youth program already has elite prospects in 17-year-old midfielder Andrew Carleton, and 18-year-old forward Lagos Kunga. Both played for the United States at this year's FIFA Under-20 World Cup, and have already made their professional debuts.

The Union don't lack for physical infrastructure. There's a well-equipped practice facility for the senior team next to Talen Energy Stadium, and the team-run high school in Wayne uses the great facilities at YSC Sports.

And there is a strong academy pipeline, even if it has only recently started to bear fruit. Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty were also key players on that U.S. Under-20 World Cup team, and 17-year-old playmaker Anthony Fontana will join them in Chester next spring.

As the standings show, not everything is going perfectly in Atlanta. The move to Mercedes-Benz Stadium will bring another challenge, as it has artificial turf instead of Bobby Dodd Stadium's grass.

But the combination of talent, smarts, infrastructure, and crowd support has already made Atlanta United one of MLS' standard-bearers. If the notoriously thrifty Union don't spend more to keep up, they run the risk of being left even farther behind than they already are. And Curtin knows it.

"We have a top facility here, we have a top weight room and amenities and that kind of thing — but now we have to take that jump on the field, because you do see where the league is going," Curtin said. "There's certainly these big investments of money toward players, and rules are changing, and there's going to be more and more. It's getting bigger and bigger for sure, and we'll have to grow, and have a big offseason coming up."

Curtin also noted that "sometimes, when you have a three-to-five year plan, it can change quickly with the way things and the rules can change quickly in the league."

That was another warning. And like the others, it wasn't that subtle.

7 p.m. Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium

TV/online streaming: CSN, (paid subscription)

Union's record: 8-12-6, 30 points; 9th in the East (7-4-2 at home)
Atlanta's record: 10-8-5, 35 points; 7th in the East (4-6-4 on the road)

Series history: First ever meeting

Midfielder Miguel Almirón: He is the straw that stirs the attack's drink, and was deservedly picked as an All-Star by fans in his first season in MLS.

Defender Greg Garza: The 26-year-old left back has the potential to play for the U.S. national team at the 2018 World Cup, and for some time after that.

Goalkeeper Brad Guzan: A stalwart for years with the national team, he came back to MLS after nine years in England. It gives him stability - and likely a sizable paycheck - after perennially fighting relegation overseas.