But the biggest single factor in Atlanta United’s early success is owner Arthur Blank.
“Arthur Blank — I love that guy,” the taxi driver gushed as his car pulled up to the stately Buckhead mansion that houses the billionaire Home Depot founder’s business operations, a sentiment that seems unanimous across the city.
Inside the building, it’s easy to see why. In a room off the main entrance, the longtime owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons’ approach is emblazoned on a display case in the form of six core values: Put people first. Listen to the customer. Include everyone. Innovate continuously. Lead by example. Give back.
They aren’t just words to the 74-year-old Queens, New York, native. In February, when the Falcons reached their second Super Bowl, Blank showed his appreciation to the team’s 270 employees by taking them to Houston for the big game.
Blank and Garber have known each other since the latter’s days at the NFL. Blank had been trying to sell the commissioner on Atlanta for a decade before finally getting the go-ahead, after plopping down the $100 million expansion fee, in 2014.
The region had long been a youth soccer hotbed — two members of the U.S. team that reached the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff, grew up in the area — but for a long time, MLS was not convinced an expansion team would be a success.
“Ten years ago we didn’t believe that Atlanta would be the market that it has become,” Garber said. “We are where we are because Arthur Blank had the vision to do this.”
From the start, Blank was committed to hiring the best people available.
Carlos Bocanegra gives ESPN FC an exclusive look at Atlanta United’s brand-new training facility.
Eales was an ideal fit. He’d played college soccer at Brown University and was a director at West Bromwich Albion before landing at Spurs. Still, he was skeptical heading into his interview with Blank.
“Before I met Arthur, one of my concerns was that I don’t want to be that little brother to the Falcons, just a tenant for the stadium without the commitment,” Eales said. “I could tell as soon as I met Arthur just how serious he was.
“With all Arthur has done for Atlanta, people knew we already had an owner who walks the walk,” Eales continued. “He cares about the city, he wants to be successful, and people know he’s going to be committed to it. Those 10,000 season ticket deposits we got when the team was announced was solely because of Arthur’s credibility.”
Although Blank was relatively new to soccer — he met his third and current wife, Angela, though their soccer-playing children from previous marriages — his sports background helped him get up to speed quickly. Eales was able to persuade him that a world-class training facility was a worthy investment despite the hefty price tag, as it would allow the club to lure players from inside and outside MLS, and to develop their own. The facility, which borrows several design elements from Tottenham’s Enfield Training Centre, instantly became the most lavish in MLS.
Blank green lit the hiring of former U.S. national team captain Carlos Bocanegra as the team’s technical director, then allowed Eales to quickly snap up Paul McDonough, the former Orlando GM, when he became available. The three-pronged leadership structure seemed excessive by MLS standards, but their varying experiences helped Atlanta when it came to building out the roster.
But first, they had to hire a coach.
Eales had a connection to Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who had led Lionel Messi and Argentina to a runner-up finish at last summer’s Copa America Centenario, through Tottenham’s Argentine boss Mauricio Pochettino. After he and Bocanegra flew to Rosario, Argentina, to meet with Martino, they came away convinced they could get him.
Watch and listen to how Atlanta United manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino conducts a training session.
“Darren told me we had this candidate who had been the coach of Paraguay, of Argentina, of Barcelona. I said, ‘Sounds great,'” said Blank. There was one problem: Martino didn’t speak English.
“This is Major League Soccer. We’re playing in America. How is that going to work?” Blank asked Eales.
Eales eventually convinced his boss that language wouldn’t be an issue on a multicultural team. He’d take lessons. Besides, Martino’s wife was an English teacher. After Atlanta got its man, Martino’s all-world pedigree quickly became the fledgling club’s best recruiting tool.
Eales had determined that a marquee designated player signing was not required to sell tickets, which were being snapped up in droves. Instead, he set about acquiring lesser-known South Americans who would produce on the field, grow with the club and, if all went well, eventually be sold to European teams for profit that would be re-invested in the roster.
Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron arrived first, followed by Venezuelan forward Josef Martinez, They joined Argentine midfielder Hector Villalba, who signed on last summer. Each player was 22 at the time.
Going young was risky. With just three DP slots available, the club had to get it right. Eales, Bocanegra and McDonough did their due diligence on each player.
“Miguel is fantastic on the ball and can pick out a pass from pretty much anywhere on the field, but he’ll also sprint back 40 yards and slide tackle a guy to poke the ball away,” Bocanegra said. “We wanted to have two-way players that have the quality, the technical ability, the pace and stamina to go forward all game, but who also have the fight to run back and defend and help the team. Nowadays in MLS, it’s a two-way game. You can’t have luxury players on the field.”
Atlanta United president Darren Eales brings with him Premier League experience from his time at West Brom and Tottenham. Atlanta United
In a club trying to build a culture, character was as important as ability.
Eales’ vast network enabled him to consult England national team goalkeeper Joe Hart about Martinez, then Hart’s teammate with Italian club Torino. The deal was done only after Hart gave Martinez the person a sterling review. Martino was already familiar with compatriots Villalba, defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and forward Yamil Asad, who was signed on loan from Argentine club Velez Sarsfield.
He also knew MLS better than Atlanta’s brass could have hoped for.
Eales had legitimate fears about Martino’s ability to adapt to MLS’s byzantine player acquisition rules — foreign coaches have struggled historically in the domestic league — but they were assuaged when Bocanegra discovered that Martino had compiled a dossier on every team.
“He’d done an incredible amount of work before Carlos and I ever met him,” Eales said. “Like most coaches who get to that level, he’s a soccer junkie. He understood what he was getting into.”
That meant Martino didn’t need to be told that finding proven MLS players to complement the imports would be crucial to his team’s fortunes. After poring through film, he identified Columbus Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurst as a must-have, so the club traded for him. Right-back Tyrone Mears arrived fresh off an MLS Cup win with Seattle, and journeyman midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Jacob Peterson signed on as free agents.
“It was a no-brainer,” Larentowicz, a 13-year MLS veteran who played for no-frills organizations in New England, Colorado and Chicago before spending last season with the LA Galaxy, said of his decision. “They hired Tata, and it was like if they want me to go there, I’m going.”