Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta

Atlanta United: From scratch to the pitch

Leave a comment

Darren Eales needs to get himself some game time.

Atlanta United’s president hasn’t watched his side play a league match yet, and it’s a solid 17 months since he left Tottenham Hotspur to help Arthur Blank start his MLS expansion team.

Even training gets Eales a touch emotional.

[ MORE: High praise for Yedlin ]

“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.

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 07: Darren Eales speaks onstage during MLS Atlanta Launch Event at SOHO on July 7, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta)
(Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta)

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.

[ MORE: Wenger treatment “unacceptable,” says Pep ]

“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.

Plus, time was on their side.

[ MORE: UCL Tuesday preview ]

“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.”

NYON, SWITZERLAND - AUGUST 06: Tottenham Hotspur director of football administration Darren Eales (R) after the UEFA Champions League play-off draw on August 6, 2010 in Nyon, Switzerland. The play-offs are played over two legs on 17/18 and 24/25 August. The ten play-off winners will join the 22 automatic entrants in the UEFA Champions League group stage, the draw for which will be held in Monaco on 26 August 26, 2010. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/EuroFootball/Getty Images)
(Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/EuroFootball/Getty Images)

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.

[ MORE: Clattenburg’s PL time not over ]

“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.

Liverpool on late let-off: “You can’t do that in the Champions League”

AP Photo/Dave Thompson
Leave a comment

Count Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson among those let down by the final 10 minutes of their UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg on Tuesday.

The Reds took a 5-0 lead and conceded goals to Edin Dzeko and Diego Perotti to give the visitors hope with two away goals heading back to Italy for the May 2 second leg.

[ RECAP: Liverpool 5-2 Roma ]

“It felt as though we were in full control but we basically gave them two goals, you can’t do that in the Champions League,” Henderson said. “At the same time we played well, we will go there with a three goal advantage.”

Reds center back Virgil Van Dijk was visibly frustrated even when discussing the boss-level effort in building a lead which should be very hard to erase in Rome.

“It was a fantastic evening, lot of good goals,” Van Dijk said. “A lot of passion, frustration, but the last minutes stays in my mind right now. … It can’t happen. Obviously we know Roma have a lot of quality but we need to do better. But we have a 5-2 lead to take with us to Rome. It’s going to be very tough, but we’ll be ready.”

So 3-0 or 4-1 would do it for Roma next week in Italy, but that’s far easier said than done. Liverpool fans won’t be booking too many flights for Ukraine yet, but Jurgen Klopp will be scouting Bayern Munich and Real Madrid on Wednesday with an eye toward Kiev.

Liverpool bosses Roma, opens door late

Peter Byrne/PA via AP
Leave a comment
  • Ex-Roma star Salah bags 42nd, 43rd of season
  • Picks up two assists as well
  • Firmino also has two and two

Liverpool’s trident impaled its visitors again and again, as the Premier League side took a 5-2 first leg lead over AS Roma in the UEFA Champions League semifinal at Anfield on Tuesday.

Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino braces bookended a Sadio Mane marker as the front three ran riot on Roma ahead of May 2’s second leg in Italy.

Roma’s only consolation comes in the form of two goals in the final 10 minutes; The first was an Edin Dzeko marker in the final 10 minutes. The second a penalty given for a James Milner handball that Diego Perotti converted for a second away goal.

[ MORE: Full box score and statistics ]

Roma will carry the same hopeful message as it did in the first leg against Barcelona, down three but this time with a pair of away markers.

Salah scored the first two goals, and the opener was a precise finish for the Egyptian wonder.

An offside but uncalled Salah worked a 1-2 with Firmino to add to his total before finding Mane to make it 3-0 with a tap-in.

Trent-Alexander Arnold sent Salah down the right side for the fourth goal, his 62nd minute pass reaching Firmino for an attempt he’ll finish 95 times out of 100.

It was simply calamity off a corner for the fifth goal, a disheartened Roma offering little as Firmino completed his brace.

WORLD CUP: Uruguay striker Suarez seeking redemption

Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) Uruguay’s priority will be keeping Luiz Suarez tamed at this year’s World Cup.

After the striker was expelled from the 2014 tournament in disgrace for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, Uruguay was eliminated by Colombia in the round of 16.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings ]

Suarez promises he is a reformed character and will be better behaved in Russia than in Brazil, where he scored twice before being banned.

“It was my mistake,” Suarez said. “So I have a debt to repay to myself and Uruguay, to try to show a good image.”

Things were already starting to look brighter for two-time World Cup champion Uruguay, based on qualifying at least.

After enduring four consecutive World Cup playoffs and only reaching three of the tournaments, Uruguay secured an automatic place in Russia by finishing second behind Brazil in qualifying.

Here’s a closer look at the Uruguay team:

COACH

Oscar Tabarez will lead Uruguay into his fourth World Cup after a first trip in 1990 followed by 2010 and 2014. A Tabarez team has always made it out of the group stage, including a semifinal appearance in South Africa eight years ago.

A former school teacher and professional player, Tabarez led Uruguay to the Copa America title in 2011. As a club coach, he led Penarol to the Copa Libertadores title in 1987 and Boca Juniors to an Argentine league title in 1992.

The 71-year-old Tabarez has used a wheelchair since he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome in 2016.

GOALKEEPERS

There is little doubt Galatasaray goalkeeper Fernando Muslera will be between the posts for his third World Cup.

DEFENSE

The Atletico Madrid partnership of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez also anchor the heart of Uruguay’s defense. Godin has made more than 100 appearances since his debut in 2005 and scored at his third World Cup with a header against Italy in 2014. The 23-year-old Gimenez offers a solid companion to a player nine years his senior and already has one World Cup under his belt.

Versatile Lazio wingback Martin Caceres should also be sure of a starting spot unless there is a recurrence of one of his frequent injuries.

MIDFIELDERS

Tabarez has always had doubts about his midfield’s attacking qualities. While the unit has usually been capable of defending well, the midfielders have often struggled to generate chances for the forwards.

During qualifying, Tabarez called up several young players who improved in this area: Federico Valverde (19), Nahitan Nandez (22) and Rodrigo Bentancur (20).

FORWARDS

Uruguay shouldn’t be short of goals. The strikers are the team’s greatest strength.

Suarez is Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer with 50 goals and is coming off the back of a strong season with Barcelona. Paris Saint-Germain forward Edinson Cavani is next on the list with 41, including a continent-leading 10 goals in 18 matches in South American qualifying.

GROUP GAMES

Uruguay, which will be based in Nizhny Novgorod, will face Egypt in its first match on June 15. That will be followed by matches against Saudi Arabia on June 20 and Russia on June 25.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

LIVE, UCL semifinal: Liverpool v. Roma at Anfield

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Liverpool host AS Roma at Anfield in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semifinal on Tuesday, as Jurgen Klopp‘s men aim to get off to another fast start in a first leg to have one foot in the final.

Tuesday promises to be yet another memorable European night at Anfield.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

With Mohamed Salah leading the goalscoring charts in the Premier League with 31 goals and scoring 42 goals in all competitions this season, Klopp will hope the Egyptian wizard can blow away his former team.

As for Roma, they are similarly set up to attack and their main man is Edin Dzeko who helped the Italian giants overcome Barcelona in the quarterfinals following an incredible comeback from 4-1 down in the first leg to reach the final four.

Both Liverpool and Roma are admired for their attacking play and both are considered the underdogs to win the UCL with Bayern Munich facing Real Madrid in the other semifinal.

That said, when these two teams get hot, nobody can stop them.

Click on the link above to follow all of the action live, while we will have reaction and analysis from the clash at Anfield right here on Pro Soccer Talk.