Gressel, 26, had been embroiled in a contract dispute entering the final year of a deal with a base salary of about $150,000 — a remarkably low figure for a vital cog in Atlanta’s high-powered attack. United is prepared to pay him up to $700,000 annually, two people close to the situation said. The sides are expected to engage in serious talks soon, but those two people said Gressel and United are “in the same ballpark” in terms of compensation.
Amid contract uncertainty, Gressel reported to Atlanta training camp last week. Barring logistical complications, he is expected to arrive in Washington in time for indoor workouts Wednesday in Springfield.
In exchange for Gressel, Atlanta received $650,000 in targeted allocation money this year, $100,000 in TAM next year and up to $350,000 in additional funds, should Gressel meet performance thresholds. Those thresholds are not high, and both teams expect him to reach them, one person familiar with the deal said. TAM comes from a league fund — not from team coffers — and is used to add or retain higher-end players outside normal MLS salary guidelines.
United’s investors largely spent their own money on the transfer fee for Flores. Much of his $2.1 million salary will also come out of investors’ pockets. (The single-entity league is responsible for up to about $600,000 on salaries.)
United’s addition of Flores, Gressel and Yamil Asad, an Argentine in his second D.C. tour, will help offset the offseason departures of Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodríguez, who combined for 24 of the team’s 43 goals last year, including the postseason. Rooney returned to England to play for second-tier Derby County, Acosta signed with Mexico’s Atlas, and Rodríguez rejoined Estudiantes in his native Argentina after his one-year loan with United expired.
The three newcomers will join an attack that returned winger Paul Arriola and striker Ola Kamara, Rooney’s replacement in waiting late last season. Arriola and Gressel are both right wings, but their versatility allows Coach Ben Olsen to use different formations and combinations. Gressel is also able to play centrally and as a wing back. Flores is expected to fill Acosta’s playmaking role.
“It’s going to be part of the preseason, figuring out who goes where and collectively where we are most effective,” said Olsen, whose team will relocate its camp to Clearwater, Fla., on Sunday and play its preseason opener Tuesday against Montreal in Tampa.
The season opener is Feb. 29 against Colorado at Audi Field.
United has been enamored with Gressel since he starred at Providence College and, in particular, tore apart Maryland in College Park in the 2016 NCAA tournament. D.C. hoped to draft him, but with a first-round selection four places ahead, Atlanta claimed him.
Gressel started 24 matches in his debut season with the expansion team, posting five goals and nine assists and winning MLS rookie of the year honors. As a starting fixture the next two seasons, he recorded a combined 10 goals and 26 assists to help Atlanta win MLS Cup in 2018 and advance to the Eastern Conference final this past fall.
Gressel was tied for seventh in assists each of the past two seasons.
“He is a player with high energy, a great attacking piece who has a tasty final ball and can score goals,” United General Manager Dave Kasper said. “He’s at a great age — prime of his career.”
The Flores and Gressel moves show United’s willingness to spend on player acquisitions, helping to counter an image of a low-budget organization. (D.C. paid Rooney millions in salary but did not have to fork over a transfer fee.)
It stems in part from revenue generated at Audi Field, which opened in July 2018, but also out of necessity. Player spending in MLS has risen substantially in recent years, and teams that aren’t willing to pay for talent are going to be left behind.
“I think it’s a real healthy thing,” Olsen said. “The owners have been very supportive of what we want to do and the players we want to bring in.”
Kasper echoed those sentiments.
“Our ambitions as a club continue to grow,” he said. “Coming off two good years of making the playoffs, we want to continue to build a roster that is talented and can compete for trophies.”
The four-time champions have not won MLS Cup since 2004 and haven’t advanced to the conference finals since 2012. The last playoff victory came in 2015.
United does not appear to be done.
“In the next couple weeks, you’ll know very clearly who our team is and what we are going to be about,” Olsen said. “We are not necessarily looking to the summer or two months from now to make this team whole. We are going to go for it.”
With salary cap space and money available, United remains in the market for another striker and defenders. Camp opened with just three center backs, two right backs and one left back.
Aaron Maund, a veteran MLS center back who played for second-division Charlotte last year, is in camp in hopes of earning a contract. United is also looking abroad for additional candidates.