Before Atlanta United could be a team that sold out stadiums, Atlanta United needed to be this:
#ATLUTD staff is representing at @soccerstreets @BlackTieSoccer event! @BocaBoca3 @DEalesATLUTD pic.twitter.com/IK28fUhrxV— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) October 18, 2015
And also this:
Folks. May I present to you the Darren Eales costume compilation you didn't know you needed. pic.twitter.com/zVnq14eANF— J. Sam Jones (@J_SamJones) October 20, 2017
Basically the club existed in the beginning as a collection of random events that Darren Eales could show up in costume to. And as extremely (wonderfully) Darren Eales as that is, it had a purpose to it. Show up. Stand out. Make the city pay attention one event at a time.
“[Being in the community] was fundamentally important to us as a brand-new club coming in because we couldn’t expect buy in from the fans if we weren’t giving back to the community,” he said to me in an interview for The Mothership in 2018.
Over time that grew into something far larger than imagined. The success of the club is still impossible to be numb to, and those that made it happen deserve endless praise for it. But the beginning already happened. And now, we’re...here.
Frank de Boer is gone. The Athletic is reporting that players didn’t just walk out on practice in a single heated isolated incident, but multiple times. Darren is talking in press conferences about team breakfasts and their indications of larger problems. And all of it is confirming what many of us who float in orbit around this club have felt for a while: The culture broke. And when culture breaks, small measures don’t repair it. You can enact new rules, and hold meetings, and institute policies all you want. But the simple fact attached to so many broken things is that culture will eat policy for...well, breakfast. Every time.
[EXTREME DAVID BYRNE VOICE] WELL. HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Did that alleviate some tension? It better have. We’re going to step into the dark a bit.
The obvious answer to how we got here is Frank de Boer. He never clicked with the city. He never clicked with the fans. And, so very clearly, he never, ever clicked with the players. But I think it’s important to consider how Atlanta might have ended up with Frank in the first place. There aren’t any concrete answers in all of this. But there are patterns.
Atlanta United began with Darren in costume. And then as the club’s existence became more tangible, it needed to dress up too. Atlanta United needed to appear exciting. Atlanta United needed to be fun. And Atlanta United needed to look to even the most casual observer as a team destined for success.
In actively trying to appear as those things, it became those things. In large part it became those things because Tata Martino reached out one day and decided that Atlanta had a home for him. Miguel Almiron followed. A team grew from the ground that checked all of those boxes. Fun and exciting made plenty of sense for a club that grew out of unique brand of community outreach. The collective ethos fit the pieces trying to carry it into existence.
That team exploded to life with a game they lost at Bobby Dodd. It’s kind of hard to remember they lost, but they did. Even still, everything about the night could only be described as obscenely successful.
From there it had to keep growing. Which meant at some point it had to win. To keep attention in Atlanta you have to win at some point. That team did that in 2018. And it took a more pragmatic approach than we were accustomed to seeing to do it.
But that’s where something got blurred. The team brought in Pity Martinez, a popular player for River Plate who didn’t have the numbers in Argentina to truly validate his record transfer fee, didn’t have the room to grow that previous major signings had, and didn’t have the personality to endear himself to a fan base in love with two try-hards who did Dragonball Z celebrations.
Then came De Boer, and promises of “evolution not revolution” from the ways of Tata Martino’s Atlanta United. Neither evolution or revolution happened. Those things involve success. And despite what two very small sample size trophies might tell you, success on the scale that Atlanta United designed itself to have never came.
Throw in the fact that Frank would never match Tata in tactical aggression and obviously didn’t carry the same...let’s call it warmth, and seriously, what even happened here? Even without hindsight, it was hard to understand for a lot of folks.
But I don’t think the club lost its way. I think it overshot its destination.
The club begins and everyone immediately says there’s no chance this works.
“Ok, cool, we’re small. We need to catch people’s attention. We need to be exciting.”
The club becomes exciting and defies all expectation to become one of the most attended clubs in the world in its first season.
“Ok, cool, we’re a big club now. Big clubs win. We should really try to win.”
The club wins.
“Ok, cool, we’re the biggest club now. What does the biggest club do?...The biggest club flexes, right? We should flex.”
So they went and got the South American Player of the Year for reportedly the largest fee in league history. And instead of the excitement and subsequent cheeky announcement during the draft that we saw for Ezequiel Barco, it felt more like something the team was supposed to do. We were excited for that though. This was the next step in the evolution. We’re complicit in this too.
Then they went and got a former world class player with multiple trophies at one of the sport’s greatest clubs to manage the team despite all the...ya know, lack of warmth, and it felt again like what the club was supposed to do.
It’s hard to blame anyone for making those choices when they follow a clear and straight line. But what those choices did was take the version of Atlanta United that mesmerized everyone in the first place only to dress it up as a bleak soccer Death Star hellbent on destroying everything in its path. A merciless winning machine. A cosplay version of what an outside observer might assume a successful version of Atlanta United to be.
There were two problems with that.
The first is an assumption that winning and fun have a one-to-one correlation. You can win and hate most every moment of it. I can do a quick count from last year’s team of when I had the thought “This is fun, I’m having fun”, while it would take hours to sort through every fantastically entertaining thing about Atlanta United in 2017 and 2018. When you stop having fun, people stop being engaged.
The second problem is the idea that pragmatism is the best way to win. Sure it can help in short term competitions, but over the long run of a season, MLS is set up to be dominated by attacking teams. There’s a reason that Atlanta had success in its first two years. There’s a reason it became what it is now while LAFC turned into the actual soccer version of the Death Star. And have had fun doing it. It’s like a Death Star made out of disco ball material. It’s a joy to watch. The winning is just a side effect.
That’s what went missing from the club. When Tata left, so did the weekly routine of enjoying watching people who were enjoying playing soccer. The club stopped being the best show in Atlanta. And the club stopped understanding what the fan base wanted and why they wanted it.
Atlanta United has a chance now to get back to that destination and to understand that culture and style matter in a way that end product doesn’t—especially in a city defined by its culture and style. If they find that again, winning will follow. Engagement will follow. And it starts with the new manager.
This club has made a step in the right direction by moving on from de Boer. They’re saying all the right things for now. You should be fully confident in the people who’ve gotten Atlanta United where it needs to be before to get it back there. They know the way.
But if they don’t take it...and if it it continues on a path where clout is what matters most...well then it will be a long road back.
If they prioritize a big name over an effective personality again, the club will continue to feel like a person who blew up and became an Instagram influencer. Everything that made them interesting will sink away into the hype and they’ll be left posting nothing but the same photos with the same emoji caption because they don’t have anything left to say. It will be the most boring version of Atlanta United disguised as its old self.
It was much more fun when Darren wore the costumes.
Whatever route brings us closer back to those days when this club had something interesting to say instead of just being the loudest voice in the room is the one that needs to be taken. It would be nice to have some fun again. All the side effects included.