ATLANTA (AP) Atlanta United has signed technical director Carlos Bocanegra to a four-year contract extension through 2022 and added the title of vice president.
Bocanegra was rewarded Monday for building a high-scoring roster that already qualified for the playoffs in United’s debut season. The team will set a Major League Soccer season attendance record, averaging more than 46,000.
Atlanta is the first expansion team to qualify for the playoffs since 2009 and only the second since 1998.
A longtime member of the U.S. national team, Bocanegra retired as a player in 2014. He was hired by United the following year and assembled a roster that includes Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Tito Villalba, who have combined to score 40 goals – more than four MLS teams.
Atlanta United: From scratch to the pitch
Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta
“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.
That’s a bit dramatic, especially considering the big sides assembled by MLS expansion teams of yesteryear, but it’s worth believing Atlanta United’s plan is coming together in impressive — perhaps unprecedented — fashion.
The latest piece came Wednesday, as United president Darren Eales announced the arrival of free agent signing and 33-year-old Swiss army knife Jeff Larentowicz.
New York City FC, for all its might, didn’t have Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard for Day One. And Orlando City looked strong, but more slapped together.
Aside from the Martino point, Atlanta’s moves look a lot like the idea behind the success of 2016 Toronto FC. Bold, young playmakers up top with plenty of steady MLS veterans in the fold. And surely the national respect for Bocanegra isn’t hurting the club’s recruiting efforts.
Larentowicz has played in four MLS Cup Finals between two conferences, winning the 2010 Cup with Colorado. Michael Parkhurst has also played in finals with two different sides, most recently 2014 in Columbus (Oddly enough, Larentowicz and Parkhurst started together during New England’s run in the last decade).
Zach Loyd and Mark Bloom have been there, too, while ex-Premier Leaguers Kenwyne Jones and Chris McCann aren’t going to be afraid of the spotlight. There are Georgia natives who’ll be proud to build a home culture, and youngsters like Andrew Carleton and Brandon Vazquez who stand to learn from strong leaders.
Sure, it could fall apart. Martino, for all his accolades, has to deal with the unorthodox travel, scheduling, and officiating of Major League Soccer. The young, flashy DPs could find it hard to deal with physical, foul-happy MLS defenses.
But Eales, Bocanegra, and Martino have given notice that this expansion side could make an instant impact on the Eastern Conference playoff race. There’s reason to be high on ATLUTD.
But how high? A playoff spot would be an achievement even given the relatively forgiving format of MLS. In a conference where Toronto, New York City, and the Red Bulls are considered givens, there will be three more spots. Columbus shouldn’t stay down, Ben Olsen always has DC United competitive, and Jason Kreis showed Orlando won’t be down for long.
That’s six right there, without considering playoff fixture Montreal, upstarts Philadelphia, and a New England team that’s competitive more often than not.
“We see Chris coming in to play a midfield role, but having the capacity to play in defense as well,” said Bocanegra. “He has good versatility, technical ability and can contribute with goals and assists from various positions on the field.”
He joins Junior Burgos, Andrew Carlton, Jeffrey Otoo and Alexandros Tabakis on United.
The yet unnamed MLS Atlanta club now has a technical director, as the club has hired former USMNT captain Carlos Bocanegra.
It’s a good move for the young club, which gains a respected and connected man. The 35-year-old defender has played admirably in Scotland, England, France and Spain in addition to Major League Soccer stints with Chicago Fire and Chivas USA.
In his role as technical director, Bocanegra, together with Eales, will oversee day-to-day non-coaching soccer operations of the first team, including development and implementation of a worldwide scouting network and oversight of player wellness and rehabilitation. In addition, he will oversee youth academy programs and serve as a liaison with MLS league officials on player regulations and other league rules.
“I feel very fortunate to have played the game of soccer professionally for so many years and am excited to be part of something special here in Atlanta,” said Bocanegra. “I’ve always wanted to stay involved with soccer at the top level, and to have that opportunity with MLS Atlanta is a great way to start this next chapter. I’m a competitor and I look forward to bringing that drive and passion into everything I do here in Atlanta.”
The 110-times capped defender scored 14 goals for the Yanks. The fighting Bocas begin play in 2017.
I’m thrilled to be a part of @MLSAtlanta2017 . Looking forward to creating something special that the fans can be proud of. #MLSAtlanta