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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

Premier League to change VAR from December

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Premier League shareholders met in central London on Thursday and have agreed to change the way VAR is used in the PL.

Owners of all 20 PL clubs met for several hours, as they analyzed how the first few months of VAR being used in the Premier League had gone.

In a statement released by the Premier League, they confirmed that the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) is “committed to improving the consistency of decisions, speeding up processes and increasing communication to fans.”

The league added that PGMOL chief Mike Riley addressed the clubs and accepted improvement is required, with plenty of key incidents such as offside and handball decisions infuriating fans and pundits alike.

Below is a look at the key areas discussed, as small changes will come in to place starting in December.

  • Extra information will be displayed on stadium TV screens for fans. For example when “Checking Penalty” is displayed it will now say “Checking Penalty – Possible Handball.” This enhancement will be delivered in December 2019.
  • Pitch-side TV monitors will continue to be used sparingly by referees, as “ensuring the pace and tempo of Premier League football remains an important focus for clubs.” But it is expected referees will go to the TV monitors more than they have done in the opening months of the season.
  • Premier League revealed that VAR has improved the accuracy of match officials around “key match incidents” (KMI). Last season match officials achieved 82 per cent KMI accuracy. With VAR this accuracy has risen to 91 per cent this season.

Landon Donovan to manage San Diego Loyal

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Landon Donovan will become the first manager of the San Diego Loyal.

Donovan, 37, is part of the ownership group of the USL Championship side, which kicks off its inaugural season in 2020.

Speaking to Sports Illustrated, Donovan confirmed he will manage the newly-formed Southern Californian club and he will also be the VP of soccer operations for the second-tier team.

SD Loyal will hold a press conference on Thursday to officially announce Donovan’s appointment.

The MLS and USMNT legend has retired and made comebacks multiple times in recent years but his playing days are now over and he will focus on leading the USL franchise alongside Warren Smith, who previously founded Sacramento Republic FC.

Donovan has lived in San Diego in recent years and was part of the group who wanted to bring an MLS team to the city as part of a planned Soccer City complex. After that bid failed, Donovan instead put all of his energy into the USL side and he will now be the leading man on the sidelines.

His name has plenty of pull and along with the team calling San Diego home, this team will be a very popular one to play for.

Thierry Henry named Montreal Impact manager

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Thierry Henry has been named as the new manager of the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer.

Henry, 42, has signed a two-year contract to lead Montreal and has an option to extend his deal to 2022.

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Speaking about his return to MLS, this time as a manager, Henry is delighted to be heading to Quebec.

“It’s an honour to coach the Montreal Impact and return to MLS,” Henry said. “It’s a league I know well, in which I had some very nice moments. To be in Quebec, in Montreal, which has an enormous multicultural heritage, it’s extraordinary. I’ve always kept an eye on the club and now I’m here.”

Henry holds his UEFA Pro licence and his previous managerial experience includes being the assistant manager for the Belgian national team before and during the 2018 World Cup and then a brief stint at his former club Monaco.

The latter didn’t go well, with Henry fired less than four months into the job and with Monaco battling relegation in Ligue 1.

Henry has also worked as a TV pundit for Sky Sports in the UK after he called time on his legendary playing career with Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona and the New York Red Bulls.

But coaching has always been his plan, and now the World Cup winner has the chance, just like his former Arsenal and France teammate Patrick Vieira, to stamp his identity on an MLS club.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the legendary French striker gets on as a head coach in MLS, but at least he knows from his playing days how the league operates and some of the logistical challenges that will face him and his team.

The Impact have missed the MLS playoffs in each of the past three seasons and parted ways with previous boss Wilmer Cabrera, who had taken over after Remi Garde’s tumultuous time in charge.

Players will certainly flock to Montreal to play for Henry, but given some of the reports about his time in charge of Monaco and how strict he was on the training ground, it will be interesting to see how Henry’s approach has developed, if at all.

Senegal, Nigeria win in African Cup qualifying

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Senegal and Nigeria started with wins on the first day of the final stage of qualifying for the 2021 African Cup of Nations on Wednesday.

Senegal was comfortable in a 2-0 victory over Republic of Congo, and Nigeria less so when it came from behind to edge Benin 2-1.

Senegal opened its qualifying campaign less than four months after losing to Algeria in the final of this year’s African Cup in Egypt. Sidy Sarr and Habibou Diallo sealed the win over Congo in Group I with first-half goals. Sadio Mane also played.

Semifinalists at this year’s African Cup, the Nigerians made a fumbling start to the decisive group stage when they went behind in the third minute at home in Uyo to Stephane Sessegnon‘s goal following a defensive error. Victor Osimhen converted a penalty on the brink of halftime and Samuel Kalu scored the winner in the second half to put three-time African champions Nigeria top of Group L.

The result provided some relief for Nigeria head coach Gernot Rohr, whose relationship with the Nigeria Football Federation has become uneasy since failing to make the African Cup final in Egypt.

Cameroon, the 2021 host, was held 0-0 at home by Cape Verde to draw another blank under new coach Toni Conceicao, the second goalless draw in two games under Conceicao. Cameroon has already qualified as host but is playing in qualifying for match practice. The Cameroonians couldn’t find the target again in their Group F opener after a 0-0 draw against Tunisia in the Portuguese coach’s first game in charge a month ago. Conceicao replaced former Netherlands international Clarence Seedorf, who was fired after Cameroon’s title defense at this year’s African Cup in Egypt ended with a round of 16 defeat by Nigeria.

The top two in each group will qualify for the 24-team finals except in Cameroon’s group, where just one other team will make it through. The qualifiers run until November next year.

African champion Algeria starts its campaign on Thursday against Zambia. Egypt plays Kenya the same day and the Pharaohs will be without Mohamed Salah for that game and Monday’s meeting with Comoros, the Egyptian Football Association said, because of an ankle injury. Salah has been wearing a protective boot on his left foot while sitting out training with Egypt.

New coach Hossam el-Badry, a former Egypt player, will take charge of his country in a competitive game for the first time against Kenya as the team moves on from the bitter disappointment of not even making the quarterfinals at their home tournament this year. That failure led to the departure of coach Javier Aguirre and the resignation of the entire EFA board.

There were also wins in Wednesday’s qualifiers for Namibia, Malawi, Sudan, Gambia, Central African Republic and Guinea-Bissau. Sudan provided the most resounding result with a 4-0 rout of 10-man Sao Tome and Principe.

Sierra Leone and Lesotho drew 1-1 in an eventful game in an empty stadium in Freetown. Sierra Leone was ordered by FIFA to play the game behind closed doors as punishment for fans misbehaving in a game against Liberia in September, when they threw objects and invaded the field.

Kwame Quee gave Sierra Leone the lead with 20 minutes to go. Thabantso Jane equalized in injury time and after both teams had a man sent off. Lesotho captain Marepe Basia was given a second yellow for his foul on George Davies in the final 10 minutes. Davies was sent off for retaliating.

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