October 26, 2017. Atlanta United players gather in the field during the first round of the MLS playoff match at Mercedes-Benz stadium.
Photo: MIguel Martinez/MundoHispanico
Photo: MIguel Martinez/MundoHispanico

Behind the scenes: Atlanta United’s first roster

They arrived from Greece, England, Ghana, Argentina, Mexico and our own backyard.

They were Atlanta United’s first players.

Some of the names will be remembered for a long time: Hector Villalba. Miguel Almiron. Michael Parkhurst, to pick a few.

Others, such as Junior Burgos and Jeffrey Otoo, will be words on a page or answers to trivia questions.

Some joined before the team had a name, manger or even a place to practice. They were sold on the vision of Arthur Blank, Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra.

Other stories in the series

» Atlanta United’s first kits
» Atlanta United’s first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
» Atlanta United’s first win in the snow in Minnesota
» Atlanta United’s trips to Charleston

Others joined because they were acquired by trade, drafted or signed as free agents.

While Atlanta United wasn’t the most success expansion franchise in MLS history when it started play in 2017, it did set a standard that contributed to a sea change in how some of the teams do business.

Here, Eales, Bocanegra, Alex Tambakis, Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, Julian Gressel, Mikey Ambrose and Alec Kann discuss how the roster was put together and why it worked so well in helping the club score 70 goals and reach the playoffs in its first season. Some quotes have been edited for context, clarity or length. 

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Eales and Bocanegra explain what types of players, and their situations, that the club was looking for when it started to compile the roster:

Eales: First thing was trying … very difficult building rosters in MLS because the contracts are technically owned by the single-entity. What we were trying to do is push the league to allow us to sign as many players as we could as early as we could.

We were quite aggressive. Prior to this, players had just been signed through the expansion draft and regular college draft, plus perhaps signing players in that window.

We were trying to get ahead of it because signing 20 players in one window was going to be really difficult.

The earlier we could sign the player the earlier we could work on the green cards. They would then not count as international players when we begin.

Eight international slots, as a brand new team, is quite limiting. If we could sign a few players and then register them, which would then allow us to get green cards, that added value to us.

Bocanegra: The process, for us, behind it was we need a 30-man roster. We will need some supporting players, some players that aren’t big-dollar players and a few of them, these foreign guys, start the green-card process and have some roster flexibility once season starts.

Look at Kenwyne (Jones), and Chris McCann, and then go to Junior Burgos, Alex Tamabakis. It was, ‘All right, we will need a few players to start filling out the roster. Hopefully they can compete and be a part of the group.’

You start thinking that way and rounding out the roster. Not high dollars.

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The first player signed was Alex Tambakis, a goalkeeper who played for Panathinaikos in Greece. His signing was announced Jan. 25, 2016, more than 13 months before the team’s first game. 

Tambakis: I’m in the history books. That will never change. I was very happy to be the first.

I just wanted to go on the field and play. Being the first signing means a lot for anyone. I wanted to show that I was good enough to be that guy that signed the first.

We didn’t have a team, so when I spoke with people. I did some research.

I thought it was time to go to MLS. I really wanted to go one day. That was a perfect opportunity. Being the first signing was great.

I really thought Atlanta United would be good. It was the right decision.

Eales: We felt we could take a bit of a flier with him. He had a green card already. 

All of this was just trying to get those pieces where we could take a punt, and if it didn’t work out, it wasn’t the end of the world.

It gave us as many building blocks as we could, get ahead of the game, which is what we were always trying to do.

Bocanegra: He came into the fold through the scouting department. Had American citizenship. Had experience playing in Greece in a few big games. Brought him on board as third goalkeeper.

Tambakis: It was quick. We talked. They talked about what they wanted. What their plans were. I really liked it. very easy decision.

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Tambakis made one appearance for Atlanta United, coming on for the final 28 minutes of a 3-2 loss to Minnesota on Oct. 3, 2017 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Tambakis: My first game, it was a good and bad memory. We lost. Our fans are amazing. Atlanta United has the best fans in MLS.

For me, coming from Greece, the atmosphere is really good.

I wish we could have won the game.

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Next was Burgos on Feb. 2, 2016, who formerly played for the Silverbacks. He was released before the first training camp. Then came Otoo, who was signed after Eales flew to Ghana a few hours after helping Atlanta United win a charity soccer tournament. Eales experienced leg cramps during the long flight. Otoo, signed June 1, 2016, but never made an appearance.

Eales: Jeffrey was through a contact we had in Ghana. Real difficulty there was less about talent and more about personal circumstances.

There’s such a world of difference to playing in Africa to coming to Major League Soccer. When I look back on it, reflect on it, I didn’t give enough thought to the difficulties of coming from that climate into America.

For us, it was a low-risk punt in terms of this may not be a roster spot, it’s not significant in terms of the dollars at all.

It was a chance to give it a go. If it worked out, it would be fantastic, and if it didn’t, it still gave Jeffrey a great life experience and help him in his future career, wherever it goes.

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April 30, 2017 ATLANTA Atlanta United forward Kenwyne Jones (9) scores a goal against D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid (28) as D.C. United plays Atlanta United during a Major League Soccer game at Bobby Dodd Stadium, on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta, Sunday, April 30, 2017. D.C.United won 3-1. Andrew Dinwiddie/SPECIAL
Photo: Andrew Dinwiddie

Then came Andrew Carleton, the first Homegrown Signing, on June 9, 2016, followed by Chris McCann, signed on a free transfer from Wigan Athletic on July 6, 2016 and Kenwyne Jones, also on a free transfer. Jones, a veteran of the Premier League and Championship in England, was the biggest name signed to that point.

Eales: Again, our thought was he (Jones) was someone that we felt could be a handful in Major League Soccer. We felt that whatever style we play, if you need someone where you can throw the ball in where you are pushing for victory, he was someone that would give a different look. He was someone that wasn’t going to be a Designated Player because of the contractual situation, and we had ability to start the green card process. For all of those reasons he was someone that was worth a punt.

Eales: Someone like Chris McCann, a player who was becoming available because of his contractual position, so we were able to get him, know that we had him. We felt he was someone that was versatile. It would allow us to in the background to work on green cards.

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There was another advantage to signing a player such as Jones, according to Eales. Jones made 17 appearances, scoring two goals. He announced his retirement after the 2017 season.

Eales: As we were building this team, all of these signings gave us something to have fun with on social media to engage with our fans.

Everything we tried to, whether it was the kit launch, whether it was building the team, bringing that timeline and giving us that runway, we were creating storylines for the fans.

I remember the Kenwyne one because it was a Friday afternoon when it was announced. It was fantastic for us as a club because the engagement we were getting. You know Kenwyne, he’s not afraid to engage with the fans.

That was a good moment in the history of the club. We signed him. There’s banter going back and forth. He’s a larger than life personality.

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Atlanta United forward Hector Villalba (15) drives the ball upfield during a MLS game against Toronto FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp

While Jones carried importance in terms of recognition, the next signing was THE example of what Atlanta United was going to do and how it hoped to be successful. 

That player was Hector “Tito” Villalba, a native of Argentina and the franchise’s first Designated Player. His signing was announced July 22, 2016.

Eales: We felt that Tito was exactly the type of player we were looking for. Played at San Lorenzo. They won the Copa Libertadores. He had been a top player with them. He was fast, quick, young dynamic. For us, he filled that profile we were looking at, which was to take players and offer them development opportunities. 

Bocanegra: He fit the exact profile of what we were looking to bring in. Fast, energetic, dynamic player to fit into our fold.

He signed really early, before we announced anything. It was great. It was awesome.

He was our first big one. This is an Atlanta United-style player, the type of player profile we will bring into the club.

Eales: … And then we could find some way to loan him because we didn’t have a team yet. So we talked with the league and they allowed us to do it (he went to Tijuana). We had what is called Discovery so that allowed us to do that signing.

Tito, I mentioned this before, is someone that will go down in Atlanta United history and always deserves the praise, respect and admiration of all of us because he took the jump before anyone else.

I remember him coming on the visit. We had just started to build the training ground. It was a mud pit that had just started to get built up. The stadium itself was just being built.

This was a guy that, we were selling him on the dream. There was no coach. There were no other players. He was someone that came over and took a leap of faith to join us. We always needed that first one to drop because then it became easier to sign other players.

For him, he’s someone that really deserves a lot of credit and took that first step.

He was hilarious. At the time, the Falcons were playing in the Georgia Dome. We took him to a game, and he couldn’t believe the Georgia Dome. He thought it was the best stadium ever. 

Villalba: “They are going to knock this down to build a new one? Can’t we put it on a ship and take it to Argentina? How old is it?

Eales: “21 years old.”

He thought that was crazy.

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Atlanta United's Leandro Gonzalez (5) looks to pass during the first half of a MLS soccer game against Montreal Impact at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp

The roster continued to develop with more South American natives coming on board: Almiron on Dec. 5, 2016, Yamil Asad on Jan. 11, 2017, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez on Jan. 26, 2017, Josef Martinez on Feb. 1, 2017 and Carlos Carmona on Feb. 6, 2017.

It seems odd to consider now, but looking back on it, some of the players said the composition could have been risky. But the balance made it work.

Kann: That was a very unique locker room. Atlanta United has always been on the cutting edge of bringing in young talented players from abroad.

I hadn’t played with a ton of South American guys that were that young. They brought a lot of energy into the locker room. We also had a lot of journeymen MLS guys.

It was an interesting mix of players from around the world at interesting points in their careers. We still had some very young guys. Brandon (Vazquez), who was 19 at that point Andrew who was 16 or 17.

The coaching staff and administrators had work cut out or them in terms of getting that group together. They did a good job mixing in older guys, guys like Jeff (Larentowicz) and Parky (Parkhurst) along with some guys that needed a bit more guidance at that point in their career.

Tambakis: We had a really good group of guys. Even the players that came from Argentina, and didn’t know English, you could tell were really good guys.

We had experienced players and young players and they bonded really well. You could tell.

Larentowicz: We had such a good time. Not saying we don’t have a good time now. The fact that we were all going through the same thing together at same time with same issues was a binding experience that pulled us all together.

I remember being at Flowery Branch and trying to help the tell the guys how to get to IKEA. Little things that help you come together.

Parkhurst: The front office deserves a lot of credit for putting the team together. The guys they did bring in having a good mix of the Latino players, with the American players, with the experienced players and non-American guys with experience like Ty (Mears, signed Jan. 24, 2017 after a trade with Seattle), Kevin (Kratz, signed Dec. 11, 2016 after a trade with Philadelphia) and Kenwyne, those guys are vitally important to any locker room.

I think the team chemistry was pretty good straight from the beginning. The unique thing about being an expansion team is everybody is going through the same thing. Everybody’s new. Everybody is just moving there. There’s not like the one or two guys that are new to the team. So we were all going through the same thing at the same time so we had that empathy for each other and trying to help each other out through the things that we were going through together.

Gressel: I think it was just a general understanding between all players that we didn’t want to let being an expansion team be an excuse for the season. And everybody immediately buying into what Tata (manager Gerardo Martino) and the coaches were envisioning for us as a team. I think almost all credit for that needs to go to Tata and his ability to get everybody on the same page quickly.

Parkhurst: The team just starts to click. I don’t know if there was a specific moment, it was just about respect. Once we on the American side could see the talent that the South American guys have and once they bring it to the field, and when they see what we can do out on the field and play at their level and contribute to success on the field, that mutual respect on the field leads to a better relationships off the field. we had that pretty early.

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March 5, 2017, Atlanta: Atlanta United RC Greg Garza makes a move past N.Y. Red Bulls defender Alex Muyl during the first half of their first game in franchise history on Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Different players credited different people or reasons with why that first team played so well together.

Parkhurst: Greg Garza (signed on loan from Tijuana on Dec. 23, 2016) was a really important person in the locker room. He was a real go-between the American players and the Latin players. Language-wise, eh spoke both fluently.

Leandro was important in that regard, as well. His English in the beginning wasn’t as good so Greg was key in that regard. Plus, everybody just loves Greg and respected him on and off the field. He was key in that as well.

Naturally, Tata and the coaching staff played a role in that as well. Tata would go after American, South American, English, Trinidadian, it doesn’t matter. Everyone had his respect. He would put anyone in their place who needed to be put in their place, and he would play anyone he thought was going to help the team. I think we all respected Tata for that and the coaching staff. 

The guys under Tata cared about the players and did a lot off the field to make sure the chemistry was good and things were good between everybody. It’s a big aspect for any team but particularly a first-year team going through its ups and downs and one that was so heavily mixed between Spanish speaking and English-speaking players.

Ambrose: I think Jeff deserves a lot of credit. He really held the team together. Lot of big personalities and pressure but Jeff really kept everybody together and kept everybody focused and fighting for the same goal.

Kann: The first thing that came to my mind is we were winning, and we were very good. If that team wasn’t winning, it could have been a disaster. It likely would have been a disaster.

But that was never a thought in our minds.

Once we got through that preseason together, that team was like, we are as good as we want to be. On paper there weren’t many teams that had as much depth and talent as we did. 

Winning cures all.

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