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SOCCER: JUN 14 CF Pachuca at Atlanta United Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Darren Eales’s Legacy at Atlanta United

“Let’s not be shy. Let’s make it fun.” — Darren Eales

The story of Atlanta United is one of meteoric rise, happy accidents, and the consequences of dramatic early success. At the heart of this ascent is the club’s outgoing president, Darren Eales, who along with a dedicated group of staff, soccer minds, media, and community members transformed an expansion club surrounded by uncertainty into a league champion and cultural hub in two seasons. While reminiscing in 2020 about the lead-up to the club’s debut season, Eales perfectly summed up his approach when describing the club’s kit launch, saying, “Let’s not be shy. Let’s make it fun.” As Atlanta United searches to find their next club president, they must avoid the tempting urge to find a like-for-like replacement for Eales while retaining some of that energy that makes Eales special. Eales was fantastic for what this club needed at its inception and in its infancy, and now the club needs new ideas and new talent to breathe new life into what Eales helped create.

Expansion

When Eales joined the club that would become Atlanta United from Tottenham in 2014, he emphasized the importance of the fans in the creation of this new identity and club culture. “Soccer is a lifetime passion of mine, and to have the chance to come to Atlanta and build a club from the ground up is extremely exciting,” he said. “I’m going to have the rare experience of getting to know the fans from the outset, and I’m eager to engage them in the process, from naming the team to creating an incredible atmosphere at our matches.”

Eales described his grassroots approach as being like a pub crawl. He would find where hotbeds of community support could be and would personally go there to meet the community and build relationships with potential fans, whether they are English Premier League supporters groups at sports bars or locals at the city’s many neighborhood parades and block parties. In a recent interview with the Footballco Business Podcast, Eales recalls the Inman Park parade where the club flooded the neighborhood with free lawn flags before the parade so that when their float and fan march came through, it looked like they had sponsored the whole thing. It was about organically and authentically building personal relationships with fans that would shape the future of the club.

One year later as the newly christened Atlanta United unveiled its training complex concepts, Eales shared that the training ground would embody, “our commitment to aspiration, inclusion, and excellence.”

He understood that this was a young and diverse market with people moving to Atlanta from across the country and the world. There was an opportunity to overcome the traditional fandoms of these recent additions to the city by crafting a team and a fan experience uniquely for and from Atlanta. No longer were they just Chicago Bulls or Yankees or Dallas Cowboys fans in Atlanta, they would be Atlanta United fans.

For Eales and his new technical director Carlos Bocanegra, connecting to this young community meant not only building their audience but embracing the vast talent pool in the state of Georgia that could fuel the club with local talent for generations to come. They needed someone with local credibility in a highly competitive ecosystem of over 200 youth clubs who could help them transform it into an integrated regional development system with Atlanta United at the top. That man was Tony Annan.

Annan and several other veteran area youth coaches had formed Georgia United in 2010, a free-to-play operation with an all-volunteer staff. Georgia United brought together a few teams of top youth players from across the state and in 2015 their U-16 team reached the DA’s national semifinals, the only non-MLS squad of the eight to do so. Shortly after their 2-1 loss to a powerhouse Red Bulls side, Carlos Bocanegra approached Annan with an idea and the substantial financial backing of Arthur Blank. Atlanta United intended to launch their own Development Academy team for the 2016/2017 season but had no infrastructure or first team in place. Bocanegra proposed that Atlanta United would take over the technical operations of Georgia United with its top age groups becoming the first Atlanta United academy teams. In exchange, Annan and his staff would become fully paid by the club and would base their operations at the new $60 million training facility that was soon to be announced. Annan emphasized that any player from any club or background would be welcome in the new academy, and so a remarkably diverse pool of 126 players came together to form the first teams in Atlanta United history.

A few months later, as Eales and Bocanegra signed legendary Argentine coach Tata Martino to be the club’s first head coach in 2016, little could they have imagined that their cathedral of a stadium would host a World Cup match ten years later. Or maybe they could. In his wryly comical sort of way, Eales mused “Barcelona, Argentina, Atlanta United, it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”

But the cathedral now known as Mercedes Benz Stadium was still under construction and the team would need to find an equally impactful stage to announce itself to the world. The plan, then dubbed “Project Lemonade”, would be for Atlanta United to begin their season at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. “It was difficult because if you think about the level of fans that we had because we already had season-ticket holders that were 30,000-plus, so that really limited the venues that we could go to,” Eales said in 2020. In the end, 55,297 fans would pile into Bobby Dodd Stadium to watch future club legends including Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez take the field against the New York Red Bulls and see fan-favorite Yamil Asad score the first goal in club history. “To a man, woman and child, everyone stood up throughout the game and that’s happened for every game since,” Eales said. “If you went to a game now you’d think this is a club that’s been around 20 to 30 years.”

These early games offered a clear glimpse into the kind of style the new club intended to model its identity around. “It’s very easy with a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘OK, I want us to play attacking and play a certain way,’” Eales later admitted. “But from the very first time I met Carlos [Bocanegra, technical director], we wanted to try and do things with that aim: to be entertaining and to be a team people want to watch play. And we did that by going for young Designated Players.” That first group of players assembled by Martino, Bocanegra, and the club’s Vice President Paul McDonough radiated fun and were more than willing to play Tata Martino’s high-tempo brand of soccer.

Almiron and Martinez embodied the joy and fire of this exciting young club. Alongside wily veterans like Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz and underdogs like Julien Gressel and Yamil Asad, they inspired new diverse generations of fans who flocked to see their new favorite team. For Martino, it was about building a style and an attitude that permeated every level of player at the club. While constructing the initial roster, Martino relentlessly reiterated to ownership that his plans were all about signing and forming players within a philosophy that could outlast his time as the Five Stripes’ head coach. “My legacy…I would like Atlanta United to be recognized by how it plays, to create an identity from the U-12 to the first team. And honestly, I don’t want to do this just on my behalf, but for the good of the organization and the sport here.” The following season, this core, along with many other key players like Brad Guzan, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Tito Villalba, and Darlington Nagbe would raise the MLS Cup in The Benz in front of the largest crowd in MLS Cup history. Eales, his staff, Tata Martino, Tony Annan, the players, and countless media and community figures proved that Atlanta was a soccer town and the southeast could be a hotbed for global football.

The accolades didn’t just come on the pitch for the new champions. For a second consecutive year, Atlanta United president Darren Eales was named the Doug Hamilton Executive of the Year, and Atlanta United led all clubs with seven awards, including Ticket Sales Team of the Year, Public Relations Team of the Year, Club Retailer of the Year, Digital Team of the Year, Operations Staff of the Year and Supporter Management Team of the Year. Atlanta United became the first club to draw more than 1 million fans and averaged a league-record of 53,000 fans per game with eight matches drawing more than 70,000 fans, including a record crowd of 73,019 for MLS Cup. The club had also hosted the MLS All-Star game in their second season and drew rave reviews from the commissioner. “This city, the Blank family, Darren Eales, [head coach Tata Martino], and the rest of their group should be very proud,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “This is unprecedented in our sport. And I think this team has attracted the attention of the entire soccer-playing world. We’re excited about that and proud of everything that they’ve done.”

With the highs of a championship still holding the club and its fans aloft, Almiron was sold to Newcastle in the offseason for $27 million. For Eales, this was another core milestone realized by the club. He saw the development and sales of talent to major European leagues as vital to the business philosophy of the club with these sales offering a way to build excitement and generate the kinds of financial resources to expand the club’s ambitions. And he hoped such a transfer would entice more of South America’s top talents to see Atlanta United as a club that could propel them on in their careers. Eales hoped Ezequiel Barco, a young rising star from Argentina, would be the club’s next big sale, as would incoming South American player of the year Pity Martinez.

The lofty highs of 2018 would not remain. Like Miguel Almiron, Tata Martino also departed the club for a larger stage, but his move to the Mexican National Team did not have the same glow of accomplishment surrounding it. The twinge of confusion that gripped the fans eventually became a story of ego, miscommunication, and cultural clashes within the organization.

Evolution

Eales and Bocanegra welcomed former Dutch star, Frank De Boer, to the club promising a continuation of the same style and success that captivated the city. “This is about evolution, not revolution,” Eales told reporters at the time. “Atlanta United is a big club in North America, we’ve got great facilities, we’ve got a marvelous owner, we’ve got an amazing fanbase that ranks in the top 15 in the world and now we’ve got a top coach in Frank de Boer, so we’re in a great position to recruit from all over the world.”

“We’re trying to build on the success we had over the past two years,” added Bocanegra. “We’ve got a style of play, we’ve got a philosophy, we’ve got a vision for the club. This is where we believe Frank can come in and continue to build on that and use his qualities, where he fits in and gels well with how he likes to play and how he sees the game, how he sets up his teams to play, that high-energy, high-intensity passing style of soccer that we like to play here in Atlanta.”

The De Boer era began with a rocky start. The team lost three of their first six league matches and looked lost on the pitch. A more conservative brand of football from De Boer plus an awkward start for the new Argentine star duo of Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez left many fans and remaining players looking for solutions to get back to the culture and brand of play that took the world by storm. “[The fans] were a little bit spoiled with the results last season,” De Boer said, responding to frustration with the slow start to the season and the clear awkwardness of the team’s new system. “Everybody has expectations, and that’s also normal.”

Bowing out of the CONCACAF Champions League in the quarterfinals hadn’t helped fan sentiment. De Boer later apologized and admitted that “spoiled” was probably the wrong word but the damage was done. Not even a plea for patience from De Boer’s predecessor could heal the loss of trust between the fans and their new coach. Ahead of Mexico’s June match-up with Venezuela in Atlanta, AJC’s Doug Roberson caught up with Martino who cautioned Atlanta fans.

“They shouldn’t think that it’s that easy to win titles. They shouldn’t believe that you can win a title every year in MLS. Also because they kept the base of the team, they replaced the best player on their team [a reference to former star Miguel Almiron] with the best player in South America [Martinez]. They didn’t rest on their laurels. They doubled down on their bet.”

Martino’s prediction soon came true as the core players remaining from the previous team plus an ascendant Miles Robinson tactically shifted the team back to what worked so well for them in their championship season to win the Campeones Cup and the US Open Cup and nearly made it to another MLS cup. “You have an idea of your role in the team, and in that role, you can be very creative,” de Boer told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman. “But the team is number one. I always say that players can win games for you but teams win titles.”

This was seen as a key moment of compromise from Frank De Boer and reason for fans and pundits alike to believe there could be a happy marriage between De Boer’s pragmatic defensive style and the free-flowing dynamism of Atlanta United. Optimism was high for the club and for the fanbase. “Our identity is we’re a team that wins trophies,” Eales told Atlanta United’s flagship radio station 92.9 The Game. “That’s what we are trying to create here — a team that is a dynasty, a team that can win championships every year.”

Revolution

The year 2020 proved to be disastrous. That “key base of the team” that Tata once referenced — Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Tito Villalba, Julian Gressel, and Darlington Nagbe — were dispatched by the club en masse during the offseason, along with 12 additional players. Before hiring De Boer, Eales told 92.9 The Game’s Carl Dukes and Mike Bell, “It’s important to have some experience, but there’s always a chance to find an up-and-comer. But look, we’ve already built a base and team with a style so we need someone who’s not too proud to rip it all up because of pride.” But for many fans, it was clear that wholesale changes had come to Atlanta United and some combination of Frank De Boer and Carlos Bocanegra were at the heart of it. Unfortunately, it seemed that with the departing players also went the identity of the team.

A blight of injuries struck the team early in 2020, the most significant of which came in the season opener in Nashville as Josef Martinez went down clutching his leg. The team and fans soon learned that it was a devastating injury that would require an extended recovery and rehabilitation period with no guarantee of a full return. His loss gutted the team and the fanbase alike, and to make matters worse, there was no clear backup plan on the roster.

A near-simultaneous global shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic added to the uncertainty. With much more than just the season on the line, Eales doubled down on the importance of unity and community during unprecedented times. “This is a case where we are all in this together, trying to do everything we can as a club and a society to keep the coronavirus curve as flat as we can,” Eales said. “They are following the guidelines the league has given us; and understand what we all have to do to keep ourselves and our families safe and healthy.”

As the lockdown extended into the summer, another crisis gripped the community. Protests over the death of George Floyd grew into uprisings around the city of Atlanta. Fueled by growing anger over other recent police-involved killings across the country and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in coastal Georgia, Atlanta erupted into fear, flames, and rage. Darren Eales believed the club should respond. He referenced Atlanta-born Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” when saying that he believed inaction by the club could be just as bad as the wrong action. “When we launched Atlanta United we spoke about it being the city’s club, about being a voice of the citizens, all of those things that we stand for for Atlanta United,” Eales said. “I think it’s imperative for us, as a club, that we have a moral duty to speak out because we wear the name ‘Atlanta’ on our shirts.” In an interview with Dylan Butler of MLSSoccer.com, Eales described Atlanta as the “cradle of the civil rights movement,” and though he admitted to not having the answers, he encouraged fans, the team, and the club’s associates to come together to work towards a solution. “These systemic issues of inequality, race and injustice are not uniquely American,” Eales said, “they’re human issues we all have to confront. But they’re complex and they’re uncomfortable and they’re difficult to unravel.”

By the end of 2020, the club doubled down on its community initiatives through the Atlanta United Foundation (AUF) to build and develop the grassroots infrastructure of the game across the state and to give back to Atlantans and Georgians from all communities. The club would also commit to building 100 mini-pitches across the state of Georgia with the help of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). This would expand the club’s program of building pitches at MARTA stations across Atlanta to the entire state. The club would go on to co-sponsor initiatives by the Arthur Blank Foundation and other local groups to offer COVID-19 testing and early voting for the 2020 election at the Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Meanwhile, there was still a season to play.

MLS would return at the end of the summer in a bubble-style tournament in Orlando. “The reality is that the procedure for the tournament was built up over a lot of discussions with all of the medical experts, whether that’s medical experts guiding the league, medical experts guiding the players’ union,” Eales said. “They came up with the concept, and you’ve seen that with both MLS and the NBA, which are in a similar type of scenario.”

The tournament could not have gone worse for De Boer and Atlanta. Without Josef Martinez, De Boer reverted his tactics to those that failed at the beginning of the 2019 season. The team looked frustrated, uninspired, and downright mutinous by the end of the fourth game. Atlanta United was the only team to not score a single goal in the tournament. Soon after the club returned to Atlanta, Eales announced that the club and De Boer would mutually part ways. “My job is to take all the facts in and make the right decision for the club moving forward,” Eales said. He pointed to players underperforming and the inability of the club to improve in a meaningful way as the reason behind this move. “It wasn’t happening on the pitch. Less so on the result and more so on the general direction of travel,” he said.

Though the rest of the season was lost, the club could at least celebrate another financial victory with the record sale of Pity Martinez to the Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr FC for a reported $18 million dollars.

After the team labored under interim head coach Stephen Glass to a 12th-placed finish in the Eastern Conference (tied for the 4th-lowest points total in MLS), Eales and Bocanegra would announce the club’s next manager, Gabriel Heinze. Heinze was another ascendent Argentine manager with a reputation for his fiery personality and knack for developing young talent. After watching him work with the players through the preseason, Eales observed:

“He’s very intense, so we’re just now into about our fifth day of training here at the training ground. We’re starting the double days today and what I love to see is he’s out there, he’s very hands-on, he’s taking all the sessions. He’s really focused on it. He reminds me quite a lot of other managers I’ve worked with in the past. He’s very intense and you know what preseason is like, it’s the time for him to try and get his tactics across to the team. He’s laser-focused on that.”

What we would soon find out is that intensity went too far, and his alleged pattern of player abuse was evident from his coaching days in Argentina. Just over half a year after his tenure began, Heinze was out as Atlanta’s manager and the search for a new leader would begin again.

“We had a number of concerning issues brought over the last few months, and our process of evaluating some of them brought us to this decision today,” Eales later commented.

Reportedly restricting water, intense training, and other behind-the-scenes friction led to open revolts by team leaders like Josef Martinez. Heinze also made a point of shutting out fans and media from training and heavily restricting access to himself and his players. The head coach declined to speak with media after the team’s final preseason game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That kind of behavior was clearly was not in line with the kind of open engagement Eales sought for the club. “It’s about the accessibility to the fans, with the media, with our staff here, it’s about carrying yourself in the right way,” Eales said. It seems that a lot of these red flags were entirely missed during the club’s interviews with Heinze. “It’s going to be really important we do our due diligence and that we get someone that understands when you’re working for Atlanta United, there’s a number of boxes to tick,” he added.

Rebirth or Repetition?

As the club sought its third permanent manager within a span of a year, long-time assistant coach Rob Valentino brought stability to the club in its most turbulent moment to that point. “Stability is something that every club works for,” Eales said. “We had some great success out of the gate, but of late there has been some turnover.”

The players thrived when given stability, consistency, and a coach that harkened back to the ideals of the club’s earlier form to play some of the most inspired football since the 2019 season. As the locker room recovered, the front office diligently searched for a long-term solution that could offer that stability and help the club return to its quest of becoming a dynasty.

The first element of that came in shoring up the front office, which had become bare with vacancies in the wake of Lucy Rushton, Paul McDonough, and other core members of the initial staff departing. Dimitrios Efstathiou joined the club as Vice President of Soccer Operations & Strategy bringing a decade of experience in MLS with him. His new duties for the club would include leading strategy for Atlanta United and managing the salary cap and transfers. The club also added Tom Marshall, a long-time soccer journalist in Mexico, as a new international scout.

All that was left was the manager.

Off the coast of Alaska on Arthur Blank’s yacht, Eales, Bocanegra, and Blank met with the man who would soon be the club’s next head coach. Gonzalo Pineda was the most heralded assistant coach in the league, a prized pupil of Seattle Sounders’ Brian Schmetzer. He brought a wealth of experience coaching and playing in MLS, and a deeper connection with the Mexican federation and player pool from his experience playing for their national team.

“We want to get wins, we want to get trophies, we want to play our front-foot style,” Eales told media on a virtual press conference. “As you all know, we’re greedy at Atlanta United. We don’t just set the bar at trophies, we want to play a certain style as well. And the utmost importance is their character. Gonzalo with his values matches our organization.”

“When you are offered Atlanta United, you go for it,” Pineda beamed during his introduction. “They’re a young club but they’ve already won trophies, successful since the beginning. They have a fantastic group of players, fantastic stadium, great fans — which is one of the main reasons I was pumped to join the club, because of the fans. Again, the whole package for Atlanta is attractive.”

Once again, optimism was high for the club and the fanbase.

Riding this wave, Eales signed Bocanegra to a multi-year contract extension. “I’m delighted to announce an extension that will allow him to continue to work alongside Gonzalo Pineda in this next exciting chapter of our history,” Eales said. “From building an academy that has already produced USMNT players, to drafting Miles Robinson in our first SuperDraft, to establishing a scouting and recruitment department which has signed players from Josef Martinez to Luiz Araújo, Carlos has worked tirelessly for the good of the club.”

The accolades continued to mount as the club transferred its flagship Homegrown prospect, George Bello to Germany’s Arminia Bielefeld a few months later soon after welcoming 16-year-old phenom, Caleb Wiley, to the first team.

An injury-riddled start to a season brimming with potential brought back the frustrations of the previous three years. The players still looked sluggish, confused and lacking in chemistry. This is a young side full of potential and loaded with talent, but the results have not yet manifested themselves on the field. Much work will be needed in the weeks ahead to reach the heights aspired to and promised by the club’s leadership since its founding.

As Darren Eales departs the club, the core question surrounding Atlanta United on the field is whether this is a club on the brink of rebirth or one doomed to spiral in the purgatory of its sin of arrogance. A lot of that comes down to the vision of its next leader.

Lasting Legacy Darren’s Atlanta United

We must avoid succumbing to the reductive cliche of comparing Eales and Atlanta United to Icarus in trying to fly too close to the sun. Instead, we should recognize the miraculous heights the club has reached and how to reach new heights, the time is right to bring new talents and ideas into the club.

“Darren Eales is one of the best hires I’ve made in my career and the strength and success of Atlanta United to date is a credit to him not only as a leader, but as a passionate footballer,” said Arthur M. Blank, owner and chairman of the Blank Family of Businesses. Hopefully, you feel the same way after looking back at how far we’ve come.

It is important to remember that Eales’s impact is not just on the field but in how he embraced and was embraced by Atlanta — in its communities, its culture, and the broader football world. This isn’t just about soccer, this is about so much more. At least, that’s certainly how Eales feels, “We can get so caught up in the world of soccer and thinking it’s the most important thing in the world and we forget we’re in the entertainment industry. There’s ups and downs, there’s far bigger things out there that matter more than sport. So for me, I quite like just having fun with the fans on trying to come up with something different.”

In the end, this comes down to community, and how this team that Eales was so instrumental in building from the ground up has had such a prolific impact on not only the communities of the Atlanta area but on communities around the world. From the fun of the signings teaser tweets, porch flags, and match-day traditions, to the more impactful Unified teams, Unified and Conquer Cancer campaigns, mini-pitch and MARTA stop pitch programs, and other outreach, the team continues to touch the lives of the people of the state of Georgia. These are all great accomplishments we should celebrate.

The next team president will likely both benefit from and be responsible for one of Darren Eales’ greatest accomplishments and greatest gifts to the city of Atlanta. In 2026, as the World Cup returns to the United States for the first time in three decades, the city of Atlanta and Atlanta United’s beautiful cathedral of soccer is set to host some of the top players in the world. With the inclusion of Atlanta United’s young American and South American talent on senior and youth international sides in recent major competitions, chances are, we fans may get to cheer for our hometown players competing at the world’s largest stage in our own home stadium.

In a final message to the club and fanbase he helped build, Eales shared, “It has been the adventure and honor of a lifetime to help build Atlanta United. I will always be grateful to Arthur Blank, both for giving me the initial opportunity, and for providing unparalleled support and leadership throughout the journey. I have been privileged to work with an amazing team of people who rolled up their sleeves and made a vision into reality. And I have loved being a part of this vibrant city, with its brilliant, passionate supporters. Thank you, Atlanta, and thank you 17s.”

Thank you, Darren. We can surely say that neither you nor Atlanta United has been shy, and it certainly has been a lot of fun.

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