Atlanta vs. D.C. is a clash of styles on the field and in the front office
Saturday afternoon's battle of the Uniteds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is being marketed around its stars: new D.C. forward Wayne Rooney on one side, Atlanta's attacking duo of Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron on the other.
Normally, this is an oversimplification. This isn't basketball; there is a limit to how much an individual can impact a game (see the fates of Argentina and Portugal at the recently completed World Cup). In the case of Atlanta United's match against D.C. United, though, there is something instructive about honing in on the biggest names. They are windows into how each club sees and markets itself.
Based on pure name recognition, Rooney remains one of the most famous players in the world. Having come to D.C. straight from Everton of the Premier League, it's not as though he is far removed from the top level of the sport, and he looked sharp throughout his debut off the bench last weekend in a win against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Audi Field.
Still, his signing is an anachronism. Dropping millions of dollars on a fading European star primarily for his Q rating went out of style in MLS years ago. It is the act of a desperate franchise out of better ideas for connecting with casual fans -- although having alienated its die-hards, maybe D.C. had no other options.
That isn't to definitively state one way or another whether Rooney is likely to play well. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, another former Manchester United player who is four years Rooney's senior at 36, is tied for third in MLS with 11 goals in just 14 appearances. It is to suggest, however, that D.C. United is copying from a playbook that has been proved outdated -- proved by nobody as forcefully as its opponent this weekend.
The second-year club has trod a trailblazing path from the start, with Atlanta director Carlos Bocanegra and team president Darren Eales having agreed upon their central team-building principle during their very first meeting:
"We would like players that make themselves a star rather than going out and buying a star," Bocanegra said.
Martinez and Almiron are now two of the most prominent talents in MLS, but at the time of their signings -- two early-20-somethings from two of the smallest South American soccer nations -- they were calculated risks, bets that their on-the-field impact would balance out their lack of name recognition. Mission accomplished: Martinez leads the league with 19 goals, while Almiron is tied for fourth with nine assists.
With the emergence of players such as Martinez and Almiron, is there less pressure in the modern era of MLS to sell tickets and jerseys just for the sake of selling tickets and jerseys?
"I don't think the league needs it anymore, frankly," Bocanegra said last year, long before Rooney landed in the nation's capital. "Again, that doesn't mean bringing in a 31-, 32-year-old can't help your team. Some teams need that. They need some veteran leadership. But the trend definitely is getting younger.
"We don't need stars to make the league anymore. The fans are knowledgeable. You can get it anywhere, on the internet and on all these TV stations. I think you're almost insulting the American public that likes soccer by saying, 'We need to buy this guy to get you in the stands.'"
Atlanta has no problem accomplishing the last part. A lively, engaged crowd of 72,243 packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium to its retractable roof for last Sunday's match against the Seattle Sounders, a single-game league record. It was easy to see the draw. The home team plays a fast, attack-minded, visually thrilling style. Atlanta has scored more goals than anybody else in MLS, and it enters the weekend on top of the Supporters' Shield standings.
Its approach of seeing players make themselves stars rather than being bought as one seems so obvious, now, in the wake of Atlanta's successes. It's so obvious, in fact, that it is also a bit baffling that other teams around the league continue to miss that point.