Atlanta United President Darren Eales understandably is disappointed after the team was knocked out of the MLS playoffs by Columbus in a penalty-kick shootout Thursday. But he’s very excited about the club’s future.
In an exclusive interview with the AJC on Friday, Eales reminded that the first season for a pro franchise always is the most difficult. Consider what the club accomplished in its first year: numerous attendance records, becoming the first MLS expansion club since Seattle in 2009 to make the playoffs and using a style of play that was the talk of the soccer community.
“It was a great first season, but it’s only a first season,” Eales said. “We have bigger fish to fry. With the facilities and employees we have, this is a club that will only get bigger.”
Eales touched on many topics, including the status of key player Miguel Almiron and manager Gerardo Martino and the team’s jerseys.
Questions and answers have edited or paraphrased for brevity and clarity:
Q: How do you feel today?
A: It’s a tough way to go out. Always tough to go out on penalties.
As an Englishman, I’m used to losing on penalties in European championship and World Cups.
It was a battling performance. It was an amazing nil-nil. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more exciting nil-nil. From shots that hit woodwork, right down to Tito’s chance with a few minutes left. It would have almost like a walk-off home run.
I thought that fans for a Thursday night, to have 67,000 fans to have that noise, that they turned their mobile phones on, that scene was incredible.
They stayed behind even with the disappointment to thank the team.
It was an amazing season.
But that gives us something now. It gives us a chip on our shoulder to get into playoffs and go further and start to win playoff games.
That’s how I look at it now: It was a great season, but already looking ahead to 2018 and how do we get better, improve on the season and get better and better?
Q: Favorite moment from the season?
A: Favorite moment on the pitch was the first win. The game in Minnesota. The snow game. That made it really memorable.
The feeling of that first win was amazing.
There were others: Yamil’s first goal. Leandro’s goal at Mercedes-Benz.
All in all, it was great to get that first-ever win. To do it against a fellow expansion team, to do it way we did and style we did was a pretty nice memory.
Q: In what game did you realize something special may be brewing?
A: I think, probably when we played New York FC at home. We scored three goals at home in a quick burst after we hadn’t had a good performance at Yankee Stadium. It showed character, showed development of team, Tata with his coaching.
We always knew the first season was going to be difficult. But this was an example we could be devastating in attack. Showed we learned from the earlier game that we were progressing. This is a team that has a shot as an expansion team of making the playoffs.
To score those goals as quickly as we did showed the devastating pace and fluidity in attack, coupled with how Tata was doing a great job with the team imposing his style.
It’s always easier to start and work on offense. As the season went on you saw with our defensive performances as a team we got better and better. That’s what’s so exciting bout 2018. We knew it was going to be toughest in the first year, from imparting a culture, style of play, implementing in 28 people from different background and places.
Now we have that background done, we will be doing more tweaking than wholesale changes.
I’m as disappointed as anyone with last night’s result, but this team is going to only get better, and the club can build on foundations that we have lain.
Q: Though the results were good, do you think the team physically and mentally recovered from the eight games in a 24-day stretch?
A: I’m not sure about that. The eight games was difficult. We will never have as tough a schedule as we had this year.
We did do well during that stretch. It was blooming difficult.
Our season schedule was clearly disadvantageous. It will be nice to play next year with games more spaced out and more regular.
It’s not an excuse, but it was another factor that says the first year was tough, and that was a relevant factor.
Q: Have decisions been made regarding on-loan players Greg Garza, Asad and Anton Walkes?
A: We just went out yesterday. We will take next couple of weeks in terms of evaluating and what we are going to do.
Q: What is Almiron’s status? There have been rumors of reported interest from Arsenal and Inter Milan. He says they are just rumors.
A: From our perspective, we’ve got our team that we are excited about, and we are excited about competing in 2018.
We are only going to deal when its right for the club and right for the player. Ultimately, it’s got to be right for Atlanta United.
At the moment, there’s nothing we are even remotely considering.
Q: Can you share which players’ contracts are up, or will be before next season?
A: At this stage, no.
Q: Any concerns about Martino’s future amid interest from Chile and theories he should lead U.S.?
A: No. Tata said this. He’s under a multi-year contract.
It’s been a fantastic first season. He’s done the management job with style and elan in the way we’ve played the game.
If you are a neutral fan in MLS, you want to watch Atlanta United because of the style we play.
I’ve had no contact about him.
Q: Can you share what season-ticket sales are for next season?
A: We are in the middle of the renewal process. Once we’ve gone through the process I’ll be happy to share.
It’s very positive, but we are still going through the process.
Our fans have been amazing. Another exciting factor is as the season went on it seems we were selling out quicker and quicker.
They are coming and bringing friends and acquaintances and falling in love with soccer and the passion and energy people are bringing to the building.
Like a snowball rolling downhill, it’s getting more exciting. We are looking to grow the fan base, not keep it at same level.
Q: Will Mercedes-Benz Stadium be open to full capacity for more home games?
A: We will look at season-ticket renewals and when we get the schedule. There are lots of factors.
Sometimes we got a little bit numb. To get 71,800 (against Toronto) to break our own record is amazing.
To have a midweek playoff game four days later and get 68,000 in the building when Chicago the day before could only get 6,000.
The excitement in the city for the club has exceeded our wildest imagination.
We were all disappointed. The players are disappointed.
The exciting thing is we have the fans we have got. The club will only get bigger and better. We are in a really good place.
Q: Will the team get a third kit, or kit change for next season?
A: There will be a kit change. We can change one kit every season. There will be a new secondary jersey next year.
Q: When will it go on sale?
A: Probably around February.
Q: What’s next for the franchise in trying in increasing popularity in the city? In the South?
A: It’s building on the amazing first season in terms of trying to grow that fan base.
We’ve got now the capability of opening up the stadium for games and bringing in people that maybe haven’t been in here before.
Orlando match, Toronto match and playoff match we were able to get new people in the building. We are trying to follow up with those people and try to grow our core season-ticket base and get that bigger and bigger.
We have had a season that has given us an awareness, but we want to keep growing in the city of Atlanta, state of Georgia and the south.
That’s one of the reasons we partnered with Fox Sports South, to grow in the region. People are hearing more and more about Atlanta United. See that in merchandise sales and ticket sales.
There are a number of opportunities to keep growing the club.
Exciting thing is there are no tougher season than the first season. It was fun. It was amazing the way fans responded and the city got behind the team. We will build on that.
From a technical side, we will do everything we can to make the squad and club better and better, from the first team to the academy.
The academy is a crucial part of the club. Each season gives us another year of development and a pathway to first team.
As each season goes by, you will have more time to work with youngsters and bring more players through. That will eventually be seen in the first team. That’s what’s really exciting.
Q: Are you working on trying to bring any big English clubs to Atlanta for a friendly for an exhibition or offseason training?
A: It’s something we are looking at on a rolling basis. My top priority at the moment is working with the league on an opponent for next year’s MLS All-Star game here in Atlanta. That’s on top of my to-do-list.
In future years, that’s something you will definitely be seeing.