Atlanta United’s Darren Eales: ‘I’ve loved every moment’

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

When Darren Eales arrived in Atlanta to take over as president of the yet-to-be-named MLS club, he gave his first interview to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Eight years later, now that he has resigned from Atlanta United to become CEO of Newcastle in England’s Premier League on Aug. 22, Eales gave an exit interview to the AJC. Eales said he was keen to complete the cycle.

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Eales was as eloquent and humble Wednesday as he was during his first meeting at the Arthur M. Blank Family of Businesses offices when he began to lay out his vision for the franchise.

He accomplished much of what he said he wanted. The club became immediate competitors, winning three trophies in its first three years. It set an attendance standard that ranks among the highest averages in the world. Its hosted an All-Star game and set records for merchandise sales. Its developed and sold players for profits.

Eales discussed most of that in this interview:

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: I think just proving the doubters wrong about the city of Atlanta. You know, we’ve spoken about this before. When I took the job, like literally the only negative thing people said, they said you’ve got a great owner, MLS is a league on the rise, but there was a question mark about Atlanta as a city.

I think you know, generally there were some comments about it being a fickle sports market. I know the Thrashers (NHL team) had been in town and then left.

But I also think there was a question about whether soccer would work in the South, generally.

So I think for me, you know, having come in with that negativity and see the city embrace the club, and the state, and the wider area, to get the numbers that we’ve got. We saw it in a game over the weekend, another crowd of over 67,000. I think we’ve had well north of 20 games we’ve had at more than 67,000. Every game that has not been COVID has been a sellout going into the six seasons.

I just think the way that the city has embraced it. And I think it’s more than just attendance numbers. We’re a club in a marketplace in Atlanta, a big metropolitan area. I think we’ve got an equal share of voice in terms of the media, the profile, so you know, whether it’s the radio stations, the phone-ins, the local TV, the AJC, you know, we get an equal share of voice, and I think that’s a bit that I’m really proud of. I think back when we hosted the All-Star game back in 2018. And I think, you know, when the national media came in, when people who were supporters from other clubs came into Atlanta, it was that we were part of the fabric of the city. You could get an Uber, and the driver would be talking about Atlanta United.

That’s a bit that I’m really proud of because when I look back to how we wanted to grow the club and how we wanted to build the club, you know, we had that vision that we were going to be a club that almost felt like it had been around for 50 years, right from the start. I think we’ve been able to do that. And I think that’s a measure of just the amazing 17s, the supporters, the city, obviously the owner Arthur Blank, what he’s invested, the hard work of everybody, from the players to the coaching staff to all of our associates, to build Atlanta United and make it part of the community.

Q: What is the next step for this club?

A: Well, look, I think like what attracted me when I first came is soccer is still a game that’s growing in the United States, particularly with Major League Soccer.

So I think there’s a couple of things obviously: Firstly, to cement its position as one of the top clubs in Major League Soccer. We talked about attendance, but another big one is merchandise and revenue. We’re clearly heads and shoulders, the No. 1 club in Major League Soccer.

It’s not about resting on the laurels, so keep going with that, keep competing for trophies.

You’ve got that added dimension of it’s a really exciting time now in Major League Soccer’s history, which is stepping up to a World Cup coming in 2026, the new Leagues Cup tournament that will start next year that involves LIGA MX clubs. It’s important that in the next stage of the growth of MLS, Atlanta United is in the vanguard, sort of fighting and building that presence. I think a healthy and successful Atlanta United helps the league and helps the sport grow. I think that’s what’s exciting. I’m really looking forward to obviously watching from afar, but to see how the league can grow, and obviously they’re managing it.

Q: Any regrets?

A: Yeah, I mean this has been a really tough decision (to leave the club). Atlanta’s become my home, and obviously the twins were born here. They’ve got their Southern accents, it will be interesting the mash-up they’re going to have between the Southern accent and the Geordie accent.

I’ve loved every moment.

There are regrets. In anything in life, you’ve got to analyze what you’ve done, but I don’t think I regret it.

I think everything we’ve done when we built Atlanta United. We weren’t afraid to take chances, we took risks. They were never all going to pay off. That’s the reality. It’s even more difficult in a salary-cap environment because you have no ability to take sort of a portfolio approach.

As the song goes, regrets there been a few, but I think you know, the reality is I think we got a lot more right than we got wrong. We are proud of where the club is positioned now. I’m excited to see how it grows and how the sport grows in the United States. I think that’s the fun part of someone new that will come in, and they’ll have fresh ideas, and that will be good for the club and good for the sport. I think that’s always a positive, but there’s a core base of (an) amazing soccer club because of our supporters and because of Arthur Blank as an owner. I know it’s left in great hands.

Q: Do you have any advice for whomever replaces you?

A: Well, they’re going to have their own ideas. I think the only thing I would say, and I know it’s going to happen whoever the club looks to hire because of Arthur and Steve (Cannon) and Gonzalo (Pineda) and Carlos (Bocanegra), like everyone who is there at the club knows what Atlanta United is about and that’s putting the supporters at the heartbeat of the club. When we built it, right from the start, that’s the reason we’ve had success.

When people look back, and it’s almost easy now to look at and say ‘Oh well you know, Atlanta’s this big metropolis, growing area, and it’s always ripe for soccer. But the reality is the club was built by winning the hearts and minds of one soccer fan at a time and putting the supporters at the forefront of every decision made. I think that’s important. No matter how big Atlanta United may get, (it’s) important to make every decision through the lens of the supporter. (That) will ensure that the club is always going to be a success.

Q: What are you going to miss most about the city itself?

A: Wow. In the last few days, like everywhere, it’s sort of getting emotional.

I just love this city.

This is such a vibrant, diverse city. So I’m gonna miss everything, whether it’s the High art museum just around the corner from where I’m living, to the restaurants, to the music scene, to the coffee shops, I’m really am gonna miss it.

You know the weather, obviously. Going back to England and getting acclimatized to the weather. I’m certainly going to miss the lovely weather that we get 90 days out of 100.

It’s a fantastic city. It’s always going to be the city that the boys are going to consider home because they were born here. I’m just really pleased in terms of the contacts I’ve made, in terms of everyone, the supporters, with the wonderful associates that I’ve worked, with Arthur Blank as an owner. I’m always going to have those friendships and a reason to come back to visit. There’s always going to be the opportunity to get to come back and say hello to friends.

Q: Will you return for the World Cup?

A: Absolutely. With the greater soccer in the United States, and its importance, and the support in the marketplace, I’m sure we will be able at some stage to bring Newcastle as well.

Q: How would you like to be remembered by the 17s?

A: I think as someone that brought soccer to an amazing city and an amazing state and set it up for success. I think we’ve done that.

It was just amazing, the last game.

Their passion, their energy is just incredible. We’ve spoke about how this is a city that Atlanta United filled the void that was obviously apparent, obviously needed. This was someone that was a small part of that success at setting up Atlanta United to be one of the biggest clubs in the world down the line.

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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule

Feb. 27 Atlanta United 3, Sporting KC 1

March 5 Colorado 3, Atlanta United 0

March 13 Atlanta United 2, Charlotte 1

March 19 Atlanta United 3, Montreal 3

April 2 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 0

April 10 Charlotte 1, Atlanta United 0

April 16 Atlanta United 0, Cincinnati 0

April 24 Miami 2, Atlanta United 1

April 30 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 4, Chicago 1

May 15 Atlanta United 2, New England 2

May 21 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

May 28 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 1

June 19 Atlanta United 2, Miami 0

June 25 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 1

June 30 New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 1

July 3 Atlanta United 2, NYCFC 2

July 9 Austin 3, Atlanta United 0

July 13 Atlanta United 2, Real Salt Lake 1

July 17 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

July 24 L.A. Galaxy 2, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Atlanta United 0, Chicago 0

August 6 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 1

August 13 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

August 17 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

August 21 at Columbus, 5:30 p.m., FS1

August 28 vs. D.C. United, 4 p.m., UNIV

August 31 at Philadelphia, 7 p.m., FS1

Sept. 4 at Portland, 5:30 p.m., FOX

Sept. 10 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 14 at Orlando, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept 17 vs. Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 1 at New England, 1 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 9 vs. NYCFC, TBD, BSSO/BSSE