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.

Nainggolan pegs back Inter in draw with Cagliari

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Inter’s challenge of Juventus for the Scudetto this season continues to absorb punches, each one slightly more damaging than the last.

The most recent blow came on Sunday as Inter suffered its third straight draw, pegged back by Cagliari as Radja Nainggolan delivered a 78th minute equalizer in a 1-1 draw.

Lautaro Martinez put Inter in front in the first half, with a pinpoint header buried off new signing Ashley Young‘s cross just before the half-hour mark. Unfortunately, as has been the story of late, they were unable to tack on the all-important second. The best chance came via Romelu Lukaku who dazzled the San Siro crowd by dodging and weaving through midfield and charging forward towards net, but was ultimately let down as he dragged the big chance wide with 10 minutes remaining. Young also seemed to have won a penalty at one point in the second half, but none was given and VAR did not intervene.

Nainggolan was the man to keep Cagliari in the hunt for a Champions League place, delivering a 78th minute shot that deflected off the heel of Inter defender Alessandro Bastoni and tucked perfectly inside the bottom-left corner. The deflection was a stroke of luck, but not all that harsh as Cagliari finished the match with a whopping 60% possession on the road at the second-placed Inter side.

To make matters worse, Martinez – who has been so massively important to Inter this entire season – lost his head deep in stoppage time, sent off for dissent after arguing a non-call. That leaves him suspended for the next league match against Udinese.

The lone point leaves Inter three points back of Juventus, who plays later Sunday against Napoli. A victory would carry the Old Lady six full points atop the table, with Inter having drawn against Atalanta and Lecce previously. The draw also leaves Inter vulnerable to Lazio below them, who sits three points back with two games in hand. A January slump is not uncommon for Inter, having won more than one league game just once in the last seven seasons.

There are still other competitions for Inter to focus on, however, with a Coppa Italia quarterfinal game against Fiorentia this week plus the Europa League knockout stage which begins in late February with a matchup against Russian side Ludogorets.

Atletico Madrid held scoreless by lowly Leganes

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Diego Simeone was once again flummoxed up front as Atletico Madrid was toothless in a 0-0 draw with lowly Leganes, leaving them seven points behind leaders Barcelona in the La Liga table, and leaving them looking for answers up front as well.

Joao Felix and Thomas Partey were bright, but Alvaro Morata was quieted by a well organized Leganes side as Atletico failed to produce any type of solid chance on net until Saul and Ivan Saponjic each missed decent efforts in the final minutes of play, including the latter’s which came in the 93rd minute and left the hosts with just the lone point. The meek result against La Liga’s 19th-placed team is the most recent setback in a season of spotty performances.

All season long, scoring goals has been an enormous problem for Atleti. They haven’t scored more than two goals in any game since a 3-2 win over Eibar way back on September 1, and have been blanked in eight league matches this year, including two in a row now. They have scored 22 goals this season in La Liga play, a paltry total only matched by eighth-placed Atletic Bilbao and those in 14th and below.

Felix has drowned in abuse from fans over the last month given the team’s struggles, but in all honesty he was the team’s best attacker at the Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday. The young Portuguese forward worked both flanks and earned four fouls, including two in the attacking third. Still, he had little support and was unable to get by a packed-in Leganes defense on his own. Partey was good as well, producing a quality shift in his defensive midfield role but unable to chip in moving forward.

In contrast, Morata was a complete no-show. Producing just two total shots in the 90-minute performance, Morata has now failed to score in three straight league games and owns just two in his last eight. Simeone’s attack was completely devoid of answers, resorting to futily pummeling the Leganes box with crosses, finding a teammate with just six of their 23 attempts. They won just two of seven aerial duels in the Leganes area, and over the 90 minutes produced an expected goal total of 1.02 with 14 shots, including nearly half of that xG value (0.45) on the aforementioned two late chances coming in the final three minutes of play.

With a Champions League matchup against Liverpool on the horizon, Simeone has plenty to sort out as Atletico Madrid looks to challenge both domestically and in Europe.

FOLLOW LIVE: Man City, Man United, Liverpool in FA Cup

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It’s a big Sunday slate in the FA Cup fourth round as Manchester City, Manchester United, and Liverpool all take the field, each with their own time slot. Click the link below to follow along with the action.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

Fulham and Tranmere have already knocked off Premier League opponents. The Whites took down Aston Villa 2-1 in the third round on Harry Arter‘s absolutely stunning winner with 16 minutes to go, while Tranmere topped Watford just three days ago in extra time of their replay.

Manchester City has delivered a strong starting lineup at the Etihad to face Fulham, with David Silva, Riyad Mahrez, and Ilkay Gundogan all in the eleven, while 19-year-old Spanish defender Eric Garcia also appears alongside Nicolas Otamendi. Fulham, meanwhile, is struck by injuries at key places, with talismanic striker Aleksandr Mitrovic out as is the goalscorer Arter from last round.

Full Sunday FA Cup schedule

Manchester City v. Fulham – 8:00 a.m. ET
Tranmere Rovers v. Manchester United – 10:00 a.m. ET
Shrewsbury Town v. Liverpool – 12:00 p.m. ET

Transfer rumor roundup: Mari to Arsenal; Defoe makes permanent Rangers move

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s biggest transfer rumors, including those involving Premier League outfits.

[ MORE: Premier League January transfer needs ]

Arsenal are reportedly hours from adding a defender to Mikel Arteta‘s squad.

Flamengo’s Pablo Mari has reportedly arrived in London and set for a medical at Arsenal, Sky Sports reports. The 26-year-old Spaniard will join the North London side for the remainder of the season with an option to buy.

It won’t be Mari’s first time signing for a Premier League side, however.

In 2016, the center-back signed with Manchester City, but never featured for the defending champions, instead making appearances for Girona, NAC and Deportivo La Coruna on loan.


Jermaine Defoe is not returning to Bournemouth.

On Saturday, Rangers announced that Defoe signed a pre-contract to join Rangers on permanent basis in the summer.

The storied 37-year-old English striker has 20 goals in 57 appearances since joining the Scottish giants last January on a 18-month loan. Defoe’s new contract runs through the 2020-21 season, a one-year deal.

“It’s fantastic news,” Rangers manager Steven Gerrard told the club’s website. “It’s something we have been working on over the weeks and it is great to finally get that done and dusted.”

“He is an incredible professional with the way he goes about his work on and off the pitch – he is a credit to himself and his family. And also on the pitch, which is the main thing. He is still contributing heavily – he is a major part of this group, this team and this squad and hopefully together we can go and share some success as I think he deserves that.”

This season, Defoe has scored 16 goals in 28 games.


Crystal Palace are in talks to sign Belgium international Yannick Carrasco, according to Sky Sports.

Carrasco, 26, wants to leave Chinese Super League side Dalian Yifang and is currently training in Belgium, ahead of a return to European play.

Carrasco has scored 24 goals in 52 appearances since making a move to China from Atletico Madrid in February 2018.


Norwich City are actively pursuing Danel Sinani, according to the Daily Mail.

The 22-year-old Luxembourg winger is out of contract with Luxembourg side FC Dudelange this summer. If the parties involved can’t reach a deal this week,  the Canaries are reportedly ready to propose a pre-contract agreement.