McDonough, one of the architects of Atlanta United, returns to club

One of the contributors to Atlanta United’s first three successful seasons, which included an MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup, is returning to the club with goal of winning more trophies.

The MLS club announced Tuesday that Paul McDonough, who left in 2018 to become Miami’s sporting director, will rejoin the club again as vice president of soccer operations with a focus on the salary budget and player acquisition. He will officially start Feb. 1.

“What was done here was great,” McDonough said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s a great club, great ownership, leadership and vision. I’m just happy to be back.”

Part of McDonough’s decision to return was his friendship with club vice president Carlos Bocanegra and with others who are still with the club. Even after McDonough left for Miami, he and Bocanegra would often speak on the phone and sometimes in person before or after games between the two clubs.

McDonough said he doesn’t know why he and Bocanegra work well together. The two didn’t know each other before McDonough joined in 2016 to help the club build its roster and construct the $60 million training facility in Marietta. But McDonough said he appreciates the mutual respect the two have between them and willingness to listen to each other.

“It was just something that really fit,” McDonough said. “It’s almost like I haven’t been gone.”

Bocanegra said he admires McDonough’s work ethic, his competitiveness, his knowledge of the soccer landscape and MLS rules. Bocanegra said building front offices is now as competitive as building rosters and adding McDonough strengthens Atlanta United’s front office, which strengthens the club.

“He has a skill set that compliments mine and mine compliments his,” Bocanegra said.

Though he said he wasn’t worried about his future with the club, McDonough shared that he had already started thinking during Miami’s inaugural season about what was next for him. He was working 17-hour days and had been for a long time.

“It was a really difficult year,” he said. “It takes a lot out of you when you do that much in such a short amount of time.”

It’s understandable. He was trying to build a club whose expectations were very high by virtue of its ownership group, which included David Beckham and Jorge and Jose Mas, among others. Despite the glitzy names and locations, and a will it/won’t it start run-up of years and years, the club hadn’t been able to accomplish a lot of necessary ground work for many reasons, including political hurdles related to acquiring land.

McDonough said one of the biggest differences between helping to start the Five Stripes and leading the start of Miami was the ground work already in place in Atlanta. Because of Arthur Blank’s ownership of the Falcons and Arthur M. Blank Sports & Entertainment, there were things such as human resources, information and technology and facility supervision already in place. All of that had to be built in Miami, which McDonough said was OK but did make the process more difficult. McDonough said he would spend one meeting a week on the construction of Atlanta United’s training facility. In Miami, it would consume his mornings, five days a week, because it had to be done quickly.

The training center in Ft. Lauderdale was completed and is considered one of the better ones in the league. It’s one of many things done at Miami that McDonough said he is proud of, which includes the team’s academy, the fact that the team made the playoffs, the impact he had on employees and they on him, and his relationship with the Mas brothers.

McDonough didn’t seem concerned that some think the team’s season was disappointing, saying differing opinions are normal in life.

Once McDonough, after consulting with his family, decided to leave Miami it didn’t take long for Bocanegra to reach out and ask him to come home.

“It’s been pretty easy to pick up where we left off,” Bocanegra said.

If they can replicate the success the club had in its first three years, it will make it that much easier to forget about last season. While Miami made the playoffs in its inaugural season, Atlanta United missed out for the first time.

With McDonough and Bocanegra working together, along with then-manager Gerardo Martino, the team signed players such as Miguel Almiron, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Josef Martinez and drafted Miles Robinson and Julian Gressel. The club scored 70 goals in its first season, fifth-most in league history, and had the fourth-highest goal difference (plus-30). It scored 70 goals again its second season in which it won the league. McDonough left the club midway through that season to begin his work at Miami.

Still, McDonough was invited back for the MLS championship game against Portland at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After the game, he celebrated with the players and Bocanegra on the field and in the locker room.

“It was special,” he said. “It was something special accomplished here in a few years.”

McDonough said he is getting up to speed with Atlanta United’s salary budget, which Bocanegra described last year as good. McDonough said will use the next two weeks to help get his family re-settled in Atlanta. Once McDonough starts, he said he will help Bocanegra finish the roster and help the team prepare for the preseason. MLS has yet to announce when clubs can start training camp.

“That was a great offseason pickup,” Bocanegra said.