(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)
Some clubs use preseason to build or rebuild. Some are down to adjusting and tweaking.
The luckiest (Hello, D.C. United!) can use winter rehearsals to refine, fine tune and generally keep things pointed in the right direction.
That isn’t to say that D.C. United manager Ben Olsen and his club don’t have work ahead. They do, especially on defense.
But given the upward trend around RFK and all the talented young players, there’s a lot to be excited about for a club that came quite close to safe arrival into last year’s MLS Cup final.
In the first of 18 preseasons without longtime club staple Kevin Payne at the top of the organizational chart, here are the questions Olsen and Co. need to answer:
Are the right pieces present to build a better back line?
It’s a tough call. Major League Soccer’s restrictive salary policies mean clubs can seldom be strong all over the field. Center backs Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald aren’t bad, but they aren’t MLS elite class. Nor are the outside backs Daniel Woolard, Robbie Russell and Chris Korb.
There’s plenty of “pretty good,” but is that enough? Consider that last year’s defense was 7th among 10 playoffs teams in goals allowed in the regular season (43). Again, not bad … but nothing special.
Just exactly what is the best spot for Chris Pontius?
Let’s be clear about this: Pontius can be successful as an attacking presence out of midfield or as a striker. But in his fifth year as a pro, it should now be about getting the very best out of Pontius. (By the way, now that Omar Gonzalez has finally found his way into an extended U.S. national team camp, Pontius officially replaces the Galaxy center back for most U.S. supporters as the talented man who most needs to be recognized internationally for his, you know, talent.)
It’s all tied, of course, to where Olsen uses De Rosario in 2013. Whatever the arrangement, the club should get Pontius into a spot and let him be the best that he can be – which is surely a lot.
What’s the best preseason approach for a hectic year ahead?
There is so much attacking talent around RFK, but several of the critical pieces come with their own set of 2013 challenges. May as well begin dealing with them now, in the preseason.
Dwayne De Rosario turns 35 in May, and he’ll presumably be part of Canada’s Gold Cup squad in the summer. He’ll need proper pacing.
Pontius is coming off injury and doesn’t need any preseason setbacks. Bet on seeing him in the U.S. assembly for Gold Cup, by the way.
Nick DeLeon slumped in the middle of the year, and it’s fair to speculate that the dreaded “rookie wall” had something to do with it. He needs the right kind of long-term conditioning during preseason.
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The case stems from a complaint by Brazilian investment group DIS, which owned part of Neymar’s transfer rights and alleges that it received less money than it was entitled to when Neymar made the switch.
“Last Thursday in practice, I was welling up to see the guys in Atlanta training tops with Tata coaching them,” Eales told PST earlier this month. “I’ve had over two years without any games. I hadn’t experienced the highs and lows of why we’re all in this game. Come the fifth of March, it’s going to be a quite an emotional time.”
Not just for Eales, but for an Atlanta market which has proven quite rabid for the sport. United has sold almost 30,000 season tickets, a record for an expansion team.
The excitement isn’t simply a matter of a shiny new toy for sports fans in Georgia. Eales, along with technical director Carlos Bocanegra and manager Tata Martino, have constructed what, at least on paper, could be a monster.
There’s the Designated Player trio of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba, young guys Miles Robinson and Andrew Carleton, MLS mainstays Michael Parkhurst and Tyrone Mears, and Chilean veteran Carlos Carmona.
None of those assets were there when Eales, 44, bought into owner Arthur Blank’s vision in September 2014. And that’s what gave the gig its allure.
“You talk about soccer being a global game, and it’s very rare you get a chance to start a whole new club from scratch,” Eales said. “To do it with an owner like Arthur Blank who is committed to the City of Atlanta, committed to the community, and committed to a winning team just made it an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Eales wasn’t a stranger to America, a former Ivy League Player of the Year from his playing days at Brown University. He later went home to England where he became a director at West Bromwich Albion en route to his executive job at White Hart Lane.
So, yes, the acumen is there. And Eales’ admiration for MLS is a lot higher than many American critics suspect.
“I dealt with MLS from the other side of the fence with Robbie Keane to LA, Jermain Defoe to Toronto, and Clint Dempsey to Seattle,” Eales said. “Fresh perspective when you come from the outside, you look at how teams have built their teams and you can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
“The one thing I was clear on from the start, was I felt MLS, globally outside of America, it almost gets more respect from other countries than it does in America. I’ve seen that with players like Simon Dawkins. When I was at Tottenham, we loaned him to San Jose, he developed as a player and we were able to sell him off to Derby. It’s a global league, the standard of football is getting better all the time. I really felt the time was right where you could try to get players in their prime and sell it to them as career development, not a dead end.”
Blank contacted Eales, and convinced him that Atlanta United wasn’t a vanity play. The soccer team wasn’t going to be the Atlanta Falcons’ “little brother”, but a major part of the community.
“Building a roster, putting in the academy, building a training ground, an affiliation with the Charleston Battery, all of these things can’t happen overnight,” Eales said. “There’s been a lot of thoughts and strategy that’s gone into building the roster.”
Not to mention time zones, travel, surfaces, calendar, salary cap, the popularity of other leagues… Eales wanted to find a technical director with both positive vision and MLS wisdom. Enter Carlos Bocanegra, the USMNT captain who had started and finished his playing career in MLS before performing well overseas with Fulham, Rangers, and Rennes.
“What I didn’t want to do was come in from the Premier League and say, ‘Everything European is the way we should do it and Americans don’t know anything about soccer.’ Clearly that’s not the case and I knew that.”
Eales said Bocanegra is a good friend in addition to the perfect man for the job. He added that both men didn’t take long to embrace the city, and that the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl didn’t hurt sports fever in the Peach State.
Now Georgia will turn its attention to the red and black of Atlanta United, a team brimming with talent and experience. One of the early bets for Eales and Bocanegra was that it wouldn’t be about older big names. When asked about the successes of Sebastian Giovinco at Toronto and Nicolas Lodeiro in Seattle, Eales almost bristles at the thought that the moves inspired him. Young and fast was already entrenched in his model.
“It’s been a long time planning,” Eales said. “We were already going down this model. Lodeiro has been fantastic in Seattle and Giovinco is by far and away the best player in the league. He was that first one where someone was taken not over 30 and it showed, despite what the Italian national team manager said at the time, you could come here, play your game and get your career back on track.
“We felt we could go even further was to get those younger players. We’ve got Miguel at 22, Hector at 22, and Josef at 23. You’ll see increasingly now it will be a chance for us as a whole league to bring in top players and get bigger and better, year on year.”
While Eales has not had the fun of match day and won’t really have that experience until March 5’s visit from the Red Bulls, he’s had fun keeping an eye on his last two Premier League clubs and their top half success.
“I have to laugh because I still talk to a lot of my colleagues back at Tottenham and when they say ‘We’re doing well since you left’ I tell them it’s all about building the foundation,” Eales said.
“Chelsea have had a great season but Tottenham with the young squad they’ve got and the manager they’ve got in Mauricio Pochettino, they are going to be titlists in the near future. And West Brom, I love West Brom. It’s a great family club and it’s really exciting to see them solid in the top half of the table. It’s a testament to the guys, Tony Pulis and the team, how they built with a plan year on year to become a solid Premier League club. They have a strategy and they stuck to it.”
So, too, does Eales and United. The roster he’s assembled and his legendary manager combine to give the look of an instant playoff contender.
Yet Eales, like MLS, is going to have to see it. The difference is that United’s president already believes it. Bring on the chills.
“As a spectator it’s so nice to see them. I’m really impressed how good they are.
“Their fullbacks play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders. Their strikers are fighters, Falcao, Germain, they are killers in the box. Both holding midfielders are intelligent, physical, strong. They arrive to the box.
“A complete team. The most successful team in Europe in terms of scoring goals. It’s a tough draw.”
Center back Vincent Kompany is out for the home tie vs. Monaco, and Guardiola has not decided who will start between the sticks.