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ATLANTA, GA - JULY 07:  (L-R) MLS Atlanta owner Arthur Blank and former professional soccer player Darren Eales attend the 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

Atlanta United: From scratch to the pitch

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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.

Sorting through the 2017 MLS kit unveils so far

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Major League Soccer teams have slowly but surely been rolling out their new primary and secondary kits for the 2017 season, which is just weeks away.

It seems clubs are taking less chances than ever before, going straightforward and simple. The term “clean” continues to dominate sports fashion.

[ MORE: Slumping Spurs “have to be clever” ]

When the oddest parts of unveilings are triangles on jerseys and an upper chest six-pack, well, again, clean.

You can find all of the released shirts here, but we’ll highlight some of the more interesting ideas on this page.

Vancouver Whitecaps

The aforementioned triangles look like a fashion-forward formal shirt more than anything. It’s a bit distracting for me, especially given Vancouver’s status as one of the better modern crests in sports.

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Sporting KC

The high collar is an interesting touch, a bit of Peaky Blinders era top. It’s a different enough style for KC while also maintaining their look.

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Orlando City SC

The textured look of the shirt almost has a violet denim look to it. orl-primary-front-back

Los Angeles Galaxy

Similar “texturing” here, and I like the separate blue hue on the sleeves and stripes. la-secondary-front-back

DC United

I like the working of all three colors into the shirt, although I can’t help thinking “ab workout” with the chest design.

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Tim Howard talks quality of MLS with Merseyside paper

MANHATTAN BEACH, CA - JANUARY 18:  MLS soccer player Tim Howard attends MLS Media Week - Day 2 at Manhattan Beach Marriott on January 18, 2017 in Manhattan Beach, California.  (Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for TAG Heuer)
Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for TAG Heuer
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Tim Howard was caught off guard by the quality of MLS in multiple ways.

The longtime Premier League and USMNT goalkeeper left MLS at age 23 and returned after a decade and a half.

[ MORE: Slumping Spurs “have to be clever” ]

Howard, 37, was surprised that the quality of play in the league was so good, while also finding the know-how to be a bit off his expectations.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“I thought that tactically the league would be really good, but technically it would be down. I found it to be the opposite.

“Tactically each team needed some work, which I thought was a good thing if we could get the Rapids organised. That was true.

“We’ve got to a point now where people are no longer looking at MLS as a retirement league. Players are coming here to work, to perform, to be a part of a culture. That’s a good thing.”

Howard also admitted that he’s been keeping former teammates Phil Jagielka and Ross Barkley up to date on the quality of the league, and says he still misses walking down the tunnel at Goodison Park. Read it all here.

Drama over: Ali Curtis, New York Red Bulls part ways

DC United v New York Red Bulls - Eastern Conference Semifinals
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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The perceived mess is over.

The New York Red Bulls have “mutually parted ways” with sporting director Ali Curtis, the man who shepherded the club to the 2015 Supporters’ Shield.

The Red Bulls have had Curtis twisting in the wind for several weeks, and it was unclear for a time who was calling the shots in his stead.

[ MORE: Wenger safe through season ]

Thursday’s release said the team “tried to work through differing views” with Curtis over the past month.

Notably, the Red Bulls shipped Dax McCarty to Chicago, prompting the fan favorite midfielder to put the onus on coach Jesse Marsch, not Curtis.

From NewYorkRedBulls.com:

“I thank the New York Red Bulls for the opportunity,” said Ali Curtis. “It was a privilege and honor to serve the fans, players and staff. I am very proud of all the work and accomplishments of our team, both on and off the field, from the youth academy, through the USL team and to the first team. I would also like to thank the families of all of the staff and players as their support helped to fuel our achievements.

“Lastly, the lifeblood of a club remains its fans, and I would be remiss if I did not thank them for their tremendous passion. The New York Metropolitan area will always be very special to me as my two children were born here, and loved cheering at Red Bull Arena. I will bring all of these good memories to my next opportunity in this great sport.”

The Red Bulls navigated similar stormy waters when Curtis removed Mike Petke in favor of Marsch, so it’s not the end of the world. It is, however, certainly another tricky time and new era at Red Bull Arena.

Minnesota United signs Gatt, trades for GK Shuttleworth

FOXBORO, MA - MARCH 21: Bobby Shuttleworth #22 of New England Revolution looks on during the first half against the Montreal Impact at Gillette Stadium on March 21, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
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Minnesota United added two significant pieces to their inaugural run in Major League Soccer on Wednesday.

First, the club signed USMNT winger Joshua Gatt from Molde, who signed him under former Manchester United star Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

The 25-year-old Michigan native left the States in 2010, but has dealt with myriad injuries and was limited to just two caps with the national team.

[ MORE: NYCFC signs new DP ]

Joining Gatt in Minnesota is longtime New England goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, who had been with the Revolution since 2009. The Loons sent Femi Hollinger-Janzen the other way.

Shuttleworth, 29, posted 34 clean sheets in 127 appearances for New England, starting in an MLS Cup Final.

Minnesota has three other goalkeepers on the roster in Swedish veteran John Rune Alvbage, well-traveled Patrick McLain, and Wake Forest standout Alec Ferrell.

The moves add differing reasons to feel good about the Loons. Shuttleworth will bring loads of MLS experience to the expansion team, while Gatt’s potential is huge if he can remain healthy.