A free cup of coffee, a simple gift that showed the city’s support of its newest champion, is among the reasons why Frank de Boer is Atlanta United’s new manager.
The team made official on Sunday that de Boer will succeed Gerardo Martino as its second manager. De Boer has signed a multi-year offer. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.
De Boer, a 48-year-old native of Netherlands, is expected to bring some Orange to the Red, Black and Gold in terms of continuing the success the club has experienced on the field while at the same developing the pipeline of the academy through Atlanta United 2 to Atlanta United.
“We want to be competitive on all fronts, which is our aim every season,” Atlanta United President Darren Eales said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We have the MLS Cup, the Champions League, which is new to us. We want to help through our youth development, not only getting players into first team, but from the academy to Atlanta United 2 to the first team. Frank’s background and expertise having come through Ajax will help our development. He understands the importance of the pipeline.
“Keep this freight train rolling. Keep building on the success we’ve had.”
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De Boer will start Jan. 1. He will be introduced sometime after the new year and will meet the team when it opens training camp on Jan. 14. He will have discussions with the players before training camp opens.
“I’m excited to start a new journey with you,’ de Boer said in a message on social media posted by Atlanta United. “The stadium, the atmosphere, the culture, I can’t wait to be part of it all. Looking forward to bringing more hardware to the club.”
De Boer has already been in Atlanta once, and his visit played an important role in sealing the deal.
Taking a tour with Eales the week after the team defeated Portland to win the MLS Cup, de Boer was shown the $60 million training facility in Marietta and was impressed. He was shown the $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium and was impressed. He saw the flags hanging around homes in the city. The support was palpable and real.
Then, hunched down in the back seat of Eales’ car so that he wouldn’t be recognized, Eales stopped at a Starbucks. The attendant, an Atlanta United supporter, recognized Eales and comped him the coffee.
Put it all together and de Boer was shown that Atlanta loves the Five Stripes.
“That feeling of the way the city got behind the club in the aftermath of winning the Cup strengthened the sense that this is a big club,” Eales said.
De Boer was one of approximately 50 candidates who Atlanta United considered. Fifteen were considered more strongly. Seven were interviewed. Eales declined to say who he interviewed.
Like Martino during his interview with Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra and Eales in Argentina in 2016, de Boer came prepared to a meeting in London, having done due diligence regarding each of the players on the club and teams in the league. They also discussed training sessions, team set up and tactics and how to strengthen the roster.
Eales said De Boer resonated with the club as being the next person to take over because the role seemed more evolutionary than revolutionary. That is what was needed when Martino took over in Sept. 2016 and the club had very few players and was still working on fulfilling its goal of playing attacking, attractive soccer.
De Boer brings the experience of growing up in Ajax academy in the 1970s and early 80s playing in the 4-3-3 formation. He excelled as a player first at Ajax in the same system and then at Barcelona in similar systems. Those are the same formations and tactics used by Atlanta United in its first two years. The team scored a league-best 70 goals last season after scoring 70, second-most behind only Toronto, in 2017. It allowed 40 goals in 2017 and 44 last season. Using the 3-5-2 in the playoffs, it posted three shutouts in five games.
After transitioning to management when his career ended in 2006, as an assistant coach de Boer helped lead Netherlands to a second-place finish in the 2010 World Cup. After leading the club’s famed academy -- which Eales stressed was hugely important because Atlanta United wants to continue to develop its academy -- de Boer took over the senior team of Ajax in Dec. 2010, leading the team to league titles in four of the five seasons. As manager, de Boer and Eales, who was at Tottenham Hotspur in England, completed two transfers for Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen.
De Boer left Ajax for Inter Milan, which was in the throes of an ownership crisis in 2016. That stress, in addition to de Boer attempting to institute more of a 4-3-3 free-flowing style, provided too much and de Boer was sacked after less than 90 days in charge.
De Boer moved to England in 2017 and Crystal Palace, a team known for defensive, counter-attacking football but which was trying to change its identity to a more possession-based, attacking style. Again, the mix proved too volatile and de Boer was again fired just a few games into the season.
Eales said that when considering de Boer’s experience and resume, he chose to focus on his time at Ajax and how the success was supported by the infrastructure and cultural values of the club, which are similar to what he will receive at Atlanta United.
Eales said the values of the club, set forth by owner Arthur Blank, were also attractive to de Boer.
“He saw a match in Atlanta United to set him up for success,” Eales said. “That’s really important.”
Bocanegra said during the interview he sensed that de Boer had a chip on his shoulder after his previous two managing stints. He has something to prove.
“He’s up for this challenge,” Bocanegra said. “I thought that was great.”
De Boer will inherit a club that includes league MVP Josef Martinez, midfielders Hector Villalba, Julian Gressel, Ezequiel Barco and Eric Remedi, and defenders Jeff Larentowicz, Franco Escobar, Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and goalkeeper Brad Guzan. It switched between a 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 formation last season.
De Boer is multi-lingual, speaking Dutch, English, Spanish and some Italian, so he can communicate with Atlanta United’s players. Martino spoke very little English, so he sometimes relied on assistants or players to help him express his instructions.
The team has several spots open on the roster. Eales said de Boer will have a say in identifying potential players in the draft and transfer market. Eales said de Boer won’t play a big role in recruitment because that’s not the job of the manager, but he is confident that de Boer’s name, accomplishments as a Champions League winner and reputation as one of the best defenders in the history of the sport will help.
“I’m a great believer in terms that coaches fit certain clubs,” Eales said. “Look at his time at Ajax with four titles in his first four seasons, having come from the youth academy, he’s a great fit for us and we are a great fit for him.
“With our players, amazing fan base and culture we’ve created it sets him up for great success and plays to his strengths.”