Darren Eales is president of Atlanta United
Ahead of the MLS Cup final between Atlanta United and Portland Timbers on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, we spoke to Atlanta president Darren Eales to get his thoughts on the match, who the team’s next head coach might be, if Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez will be leaving, and what he has made of the arrival of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in MLSâ€¦
Atlanta are into the MLS Cup final for the first time, how much of an achievement is that?
This is only our second season in existence so to be in the MLS Cup final and to be hosting it, as the team to have the best regular-season record of the two finalists, is pretty amazing. It’s going to be really exciting for the city because they have got behind Atlanta United so much that it will be a real celebration and I am hoping we can win the game for them.
At the start of the season was the cup final a realistic ambition?
We always try to set ourselves aggressive goals. In our first season we wanted to make the play-offs, which is pretty difficult to do as an expansion team, and we achieved that. We went into this season quietly confident that we could make the play-offs, and then with the play-off system if you can go on a bit of a run then anything is possible.
We always hoped that we could strive to be in the MLS Cup final and it would be lovely to go on and win it now that we are actually here.
There was a story recently about Atlanta’s attendances this season. How impressed have you been and what do you put the success down to?
Even our first season we averaged 48,000, which was more than anyone could have dreamed of. The interesting thing was that after the first year there was perhaps a feeling that we might be a “shiny new object” and attendances might drop, but the reverse has happened, and attendances have got bigger and bigger.
Atlanta reached the MLS Cup final with victory over New York Red Bulls
We are already averaging over 54,000 through the play-offs, which is about the 14th highest in the world in football. That is incredible for a brand-new team to be getting those numbers. It shows how much the game has grown in the United States and Atlanta is a symbol of that growth.
How do Atlanta’s huge crowds compare?
It’s hard to just put it down to one factor but we have been successful on the pitch and have played a style of football that has been really attractive. We do play exciting football but we also have an amazing atmosphere at the games. It’s not just big numbers, but everyone stands up for the whole match and they are singing and shouting, which is very different to other American sports.
Live MLS Cup Final
December 9, 2018, 1:00am
Fans are coming to games and bringing their neighbours, maybe someone who has never been to a football game, and they are getting hooked because of the Atlanta United atmosphere and the intensity. That has been the exciting thing; we don’t really know our ceiling yet. Who knows how big we can make it.
You’ve also had an experienced head coach in Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, how much of an impact and influence has he had?
He has been amazing as our first-ever head coach of the club. We wanted to play an attractive, exciting style right from the start, but it’s one thing to set your team up to be successful on the pitch, then to get the style and make them exciting to watch is the legacy that Tata will leave us with.
Gerardo Martino is leaving Atlanta at the end of the season
As a young club he has been just what we needed to establish that base and now the exciting thing is we have the fans, we have a team that is successful on the pitch, we have incredible players, so when we get the next coach in it will be a lot easier than trying to recruit a coach when we had no stadium, no training ground, no players and no team.
Is there any news regarding a replacement? Do you have a profile in mind for the new head coach?
Because of the players we have and the style we play, we want to have a head coach who plays in that style. We would be crazy if we went for a different type of coach because we know that can be successful and we know we have the type of players to play that way.
Player development is important for our club in terms of the academy, particularly in a salary cap league, but also the connection we have with our fans, so it’s vitally important to us that the coach who comes in understands that we are still pioneering the sport and trying to grow it and the connection we have with the fans is very special. The new coach coming in has to understand and appreciate that.
We will get the MLS Cup out of the way and then our focus will switch to the next head coach.
Eales on Almiron, Martinez futures
There have been a few young players leaving the MLS like Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams, do you expect these kind of moves to happen more in the future?
I think so. As a league it’s good for us to be able to prove we can be a stepping stone and develop players and move them on. Obviously our ultimate goal, as the talent level gets better, is to have an MLS club hopefully winning the CONCACAF Champions League, and as the quality grows we don’t have to move those players on.
But we have to be realistic and we have to grow the league and grow the quality and I think one of the ways to do that is show we can take young talent, which is great for our fans and the league to see, and develop them and then they go to top clubs around Europe. I think we will see that increasing.
What have you made of the impact of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the MLS this season?
It’s been brilliant. I think it shows that there isn’t just one way to put a team together in MLS. Wayne Rooney came to DC United and did an unbelievable job with the team, but the important factor with Wayne was he embraced it with the right approach and the right focus.
Wayne Rooney led DC United to the MLS play-offs
He came in and was fully committed. He helped develop and improve the players around him and showed an amazing capacity to work in the league, he didn’t come here thinking it was going to be a last hurrah or like playing games like testimonials. He came here with the right attitude and it was the same with Zlatan. He scored some world-class goals for Galaxy and the great thing is the football is getting better and better every year and it’s a great place to live. As a league it’s becoming somewhere that the top players want to come.
For Atlanta, what’s next – how do you build on these first two years?
We are excited that our attendances have grown from year one to year two and we want to keep growing those. We have already qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League so we are getting ready to play in that for the first time. We want to be consistently in the hunt for the MLS Cup.
We have a really tough opponent this weekend, so win or lose we are excited about what we have achieved, but next season we have to focus on getting back to the MLS Cup final again and trying to do something in the Champions League.
Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez won the MLS MVP for 2018
For the league as a whole it’s really important for an MLS club to have a presence in that tournament and to win it and then go to the Club World Cup to build the profile of the league. We are really excited that we have another competition to focus on. We want to be in the mix for trophies and keep growing our fanbase.
When I came here four years ago the vision was we wanted to be a club that was known around the world. We didn’t have a team name, we didn’t have a strip, we didn’t have a player, and hadn’t played any games, but we wanted Atlanta United to be a team playing at the Club World Cup.
I would love to be playing against my old club Tottenham one day, once they have won the European Champions League and we have won the CONCACAF Champions League! Beating Spurs in the final would be pretty amazing.
How much are you looking forward to the final?
I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be an incredible atmosphere. The whole city has embraced the build-up and we are going to have over 70,000 fans in the stadium, the highest attendance for an MLS Cup final in history.
It’s two great teams. Our team has match-winners but Portland have them too. It’s going to be a really exciting match for the fans. I will be nervous as I would love us to win it for the city of Atlanta, but ultimately it’s going to be a great final and may the best team win.
Watch the MLS Cup final live on Sky Sports from 1am on Sunday