Tuesday was a day that saw MLS unveil the league's new highest-paid player, signalling one of the biggest signings in league history. The deal that brought Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez will go down as one of the biggest in MLS history, a sign of how much the league has grown and how much has changed.
Tuesday was also the day that saw a separate deal announced, but it wasn't heralded like the one unveiled in Los Angeles. Instead, it was a deal that showed that, for all of the league's growth, there are still plenty of problems and difficult decisions created by the way MLS currently operates.
Following a prolonged series of contract negotiations, Atlanta United traded Julian Gressel to D.C. United on Tuesday, parting ways with one of the most versatile players in MLS. Originally drafted by the club ahead of the team's expansion season, Gressel had blossomed into one of the most unique players in MLS, playing on the wing, centrally and at fullback while being a key cog in Atlanta's run to the 2018 MLS Cup and the 2019 U.S. Open Cup.
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The 26-year-old, though, was nearing the end of his contract, one which paid him $132,999.96 last season. That figure made him the 21st highest-paid player in the Atlanta squad in 2019 as Gressel provided eight goals and 12 assists. In short, Gressel was criminally underpaid and was seeking a raise. Gressel knew it and Atlanta knew it, but the key was getting there.
The two sides never reached an agreement. After over a year of negotiations, Gressel was traded to D.C. United for a solid haul that includes $650,000 in Targeted Allocation Money in 2020, $100,000 in TAM in 2021 and the potential for additional compensation if incentives are met.
With the deal, D.C. gets a player that can fill several different gaps for a cheaper price than a European or South American import and Atlanta receive a decent haul of money that can go towards rebuilding their squad. Gressel, meanwhile, gets the payday he desired, with reports saying his salary will rise to around $700,000. In some ways, it seems like a win-win-win.
Except it isn't. Atlanta was put into an impossible situation in this scenario. Gressel was a rising star from in-house. He had been drafted by the club and grown into a star in Atlanta. He was very much a part of Atlanta's identity and, as the club enters year four, that matters.
There aren't many players in MLS that truly grew as much as Gressel has over these last few seasons but, due to salary restrictions, Atlanta simply couldn't afford to keep him.
Fortunately for Gressel, Atlanta was willing to admit that fact. The club could have held him for another year on his original salary and then extended him an offer at the end of the season. Per MLS rules, they would still own his rights, which would essentially hold his MLS future hostage. They didn't do that, as they officially parted ways on Tuesday.
“We knew we were going to get absolutely hammered by the fan base,” Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra said on a conference call on Tuesday. “We knew this was coming. But again, with Julian, he’s a great kid and I don’t think this would’ve been a good situation for anyone.
“Julian would be playing not to get hurt, he’d be worrying about his future. Again, we could’ve made him a bona fide offer and we’d have retained his rights within MLS in perpetuity. It was coming down to a situation where nobody really wanted it to go.
“There was a solution where we felt we were getting a good return for him,” he added. “We can utilize those funds and it will go into our greater plan and Julian will get a good situation as well, he gets a resolution and he’s happy.”
This isn't a one-off scenario, though. With MLS's current structure, it's easy to sign talented youngsters to cheap deals and let them grow. It's also somewhat easy to sell them on to Europe and use those funds to bring in better players from abroad.
What's difficult is offering raises to those who earn them. It's a problem that frequently impacts other American sports as well, as NBA and NFL teams are frequently disbanded shortly after making a post-season run. It's a function of parity, an aspect that still very much remains at the forefront of MLS despite several elite clubs, like Atlanta, separating from the pack.
When a team does well, players expect to be paid in alignment – and good teams naturally have plenty of good players. It's impossible to keep hold of them all and, as a result, tough decisions have to be made. Atlanta made their decision, determining that roster flexibility was more vital than bringing back Gressel on a massive deal.
It's a problem currently facing the New York Red Bulls as well. After signing Best XI fullback Kemar Lawrence to a new deal two seasons ago, the Red Bulls handed fellow defenders Aaron Long and Tim Parker raises much larger than the Jamaican's. Now, he wants a new deal more in line with his teammates, and it remains to be seen if he'll get it.
“It always feels like we don’t want to pay somebody to keep them or get the right persons,” Lawrence told MLSsoccer.com in December. “Always trying to save some money or do something the cheaper way instead of investing in somebody and watching it turn over, you get me?”
He added: “I told them already: This is my club. I really want to stay. But I know I should be paid. All I’m asking is for them to invest in me then watch me do the work. I’ve been doing the work. Just continue to invest in me, show me you appreciate me and let me do the work.”
Complicating matters is the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, a situation that looms over every decision currently made. The current deal is set to expire on Jan. 31, just a few weeks before CONCACAF Champions League play.
After earning some small concessions last time around, the MLS Players Association has stated a number of goals for this time around. Players want charter flights, increased salaries and more freedom within the league, one which is set to expand to 30 teams in the coming years.
Those negotiations are impacting everything at the moment, including Gressel's situation.
“It’s been a difficult process for me, one that I don’t really want to speak about too much,” Gressel told The Athletic. “I’m happy we found a resolution pretty quickly. The club was kind enough not to just let me hang around until the CBA [got] figured out, because then timing-wise it wouldn’t have been great for me. So we’re thankful for that.”
It remains to be seen how MLS will remedy situations like Gressel's. The league has taken great strides when it comes to bringing in talented European and South American stars in recent years. MLS has also gotten much better at locating and developing academy products. But those in the middle, those in-their-prime stars, have often found themselves in cases like Gressel and Lawrence.
Atlanta was forced into a difficult decision, and they likely won't be the last club. Tuesday's trade may not have the lasting impact of the Chicharito signing announced earlier in the day and it may not alter the league in any considerable way, but it is a sign that clubs are still left handcuffed with major decisions.
“He’s a fan favorite, that’s not lost on us,” Bocanegra said of Gressel. “We get this, that’s a difficult decision and we understand that the fan base is going to be asking a lot of questions about this. And that’s not something we take lightly.
“But in this business you’ve got to try and do what’s best for the club and the player as well.”