Of the many things that Atlanta United Darren Eales is proud of – highest attendance in MLS, an insane fact about merchandise sales, an ever-growing number of season-ticket sales – one he is most proud is how the team has played in its first 17 games.
“To be the top goal-scoring team in MLS as an expansion team is incredible,” he said. “Says a lot for the players, the effort they put in, Tata (Gerardo Martino) and his coaching staff, and Carlos (Bocanegra) and Paul (McDonough) …”
Eales said he wanted the team to play an exciting, attacking brand of soccer. That’s not new for many teams.
But with a starting lineup consistently loaded with young South Americans and a mix of MLS veterans, Atlanta United is fulfilling Eales’ hope.
Eales, a wealth of facts, noted that the average expansion team averages 1.14 goals per game. Atlanta United averages 1.94 goals per game, finishing the season’s first half with 33 goals in 17 games.
“I’m pretty proud that Atlanta United, our team, is attractive to watch,” he said.
And they are also pretty good. At the end of the season’s first half, Atlanta United is in the sixth and final playoff spot in the East with 24 points. It will play 10 of its remaining 17 league games at home, either at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium or at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Eales discussed the team’s stylish soccer and many, many things in a 20-minute interview held on Tuesday.
Questions and answers have been paraphrased for brevity and clarity:
Q: Will the team be active in the secondary transfer window?
A: We will always look at every transfer window if we feel we can improve the squad.
We just put a whole new team together in the past transfer window.
We won’t be busiest of MLS teams, but if we can improve the squad, we will.
That will always be our aim in every transfer window.
Q: Will the loans for Greg Garza and Yamil Asad be made permanent?
A: On both of those, we have the loans for another six months. that’s something we will look at as the season develops.
Q: I ask because the Josef Martinez loan was made permanent so quickly.
A: There was an option. It was a slightly different mechanism.
Q: Adding three Homegrown Players…does that mean that three players will have to be cut at season’s end, right, or do you anticipate more roster rules changes?
A: The roster rules are always changing. It will be interesting to see how that progresses as years go by and seasons go by.
We do have positions available for players who are on loan. For example, Anton Walkes, he was on loan this season. He will go back to Tottenham Hotspur at the end of season.
Q: What has been the best moment on the field so far this season?
A: There have been some fantastic moments. For me, winning our first game. Going to Minnesota, first ever win, doing it in the snow.
Going into that game I was a little bit fearful. We had a team of South Amercians playing against a bunch of Scandinavians.
Us both being expansion teams, us scoring six goals, which was a record for an expansion team, all of that made it even sweeter.
Off the field, there’s a million. The feeling at Bobby Dodd at that first game, more than 50,000, the national anthem being played, everybody standing and wearing the striped jersey.
For me, that was that lovely feeling, ‘Yeah (sarcastically) Atlanta’s not really a sports town.’
Q: That’s not the first time I’ve heard you say that. Dispelling that myth is kind of turned into a crusade for you.
A: This is an amazing city with amazing fans who now getting lauded quite rightfully for their great support for the team and for soccer. I love that they are proving the naysayers wrong.
Q: What has been the lowest point so far this season on the field?
A: It was a low point when our reporter thought we would lose to Colorado (laughs).
Josef’s injury. You look back to it. He scored five goals in three games. We were flying. He goes to Venezuela and suffers an injury that put him out when we were just getting ourselves going.
About that time, the same evening, Miguel (Almiron) was playing as well and went down.
I was screaming in the house on how unfair life was.
For me, that was the worst moment so far.
You have no control over it.
In a salary cap environment, losing Josef wasn’t ideal.
Q: Are you satisfied with the team’s number of points?
A: Yes. Expansion teams average one point per game. Now we are at 1.41 points per game. We have played 17 games, 10 on the road. It’s a much more favorable schedule in the second half of the season.
I’m absolutely happy.
Key now is going to be making our home advantage count.
Q: What is the key for the team to secure a playoff berth?
A: As I was saying, we have 10 of our 17 at home. If we can aim to win those home games, we will be more than set for a playoff position.
Q: Do you care what the seeding is?
A: I just want to make it. To be the first team to make the playoffs since Seattle is unbelievable.
We know it’s going to be tough.
Q: Who has been the biggest surprise player?
A: Julian Gressel. We took him at No. 8. We got that pick from Orlando in a trade. If you look at the draft predictions, no one had Julian as a top-10 pick.
As the combine went on, he was someone we talked about and decided to go for him.
No one, not even Tata, who was a big fan, would have dreamed he would have 15 starts with five assists and three goals.
Q: Which player needs to step up?
A: They all do. The reality is, and we said this from the start, we were a brand new team when we started the season.
We need to continue to improve as the season goes on. That’s everybody. Whether it’s Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, (Leandro Gonzalez) Pirez at the back, (Michael (Parkhurst) Parkie at the back. To a man we need to improve, not just individually, but as a team.
Everybody needs to step their game up.
As an expansion team, we expect that to happen as the season goes on.
Q: Prediction on final points total?
A: It’s hard to say exactly a number. We just have to keep going and grab as many points as we can.
The East is a lot tougher than it’s been in the recent past.
Over the past six years, we’ve looked at targets to aim for.
We will have to readjust our sights.
Q: Can you provide an update on filling Ann Rodriguez’s job?
A: We are going through the process. It’s going well.
Q: How many season tickets have you sold?
A: It’s been unbelievable. We’ve been breaking records left, right and center.
The highest average attendance is in our sights.
After our game against San Jose (on Tuesday), we will have more cumulative people through the gate —more than 370,000 — which is more than 14 teams had in total last season.
That just puts it into context. And we have 10 more games to go at home.
We’ve sold more than 35,000 season tickets, which is incredible.
Q: Can you share any information on merchandise sales? It’s hard to go anywhere and not see someone wearing a jersey, shirt, a car decal or a flag.
A: That’s something else that’s blown our expectations. We knew we had an amazing fan base. It’s crazy, everybody has a shirt on.
Family went to Chattanooga, went up the incline and at the top, in the queue, was a person wearing a (Hector) Villalba jersey.
The merchandise portal on mls.com sells gear for the 22 teams, plus LAFC and league-branded items. Twenty-five percent of the merchandise sales through that portal are Atlanta United.
Q: Last question, will you make the playoffs?
A: I hope we will. Hopeful.
Q: Come on, yes or no?
A: Soccer is a tricky game. You’ve got to not have injuries, have a bit of luck. We’ve put ourselves in a good position at the halfway stage.
Ten of 17 home games to come. Fan base has been incredible. At our last four games at home, you’ve seen the way fans can lift the players.
We’ve put ourselves in a great position. We still have to execute in the second half of the season.