Q&A with MLS Atlanta President Darren Eales

Darren Eales realized that soccer was on a positive path in the U.S. when he attended the national team’s match against Turkey in New York before the World Cup.

It was a young crowd, chanting and singing while wearing U.S. jerseys.

“It was the first time I felt, ‘Wow, America’s got soccer,’” he said.

Eales is now a part of that path. He was hired as the president of Atlanta’s new MLS franchise in September and started his new job on Monday.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the first since his hire, Eales discussed why he left Tottenham Hotspur in in his native England for a new city and new franchise, where he is the team’s first employee with a long list of things to do before the inaugural 2017 season.

More questions, such as the youth development, playing style and the future of MLS, with his answers will appear in the weekly Soccer Insider columns, which appear on ajc.com on Monday and in Tuesday’s paper.

Q: Why Atlanta?

A: From my perspective, it was a great opportunity. It was a blank sheet of paper, to start a team from scratch. Obviously in England, teams have been there for 125-130 years years.

With my background, having been in America and playing soccer in the A league, I’ve been following American soccer since then, seeing how it’s growing in interest and developing. The big thing for me was when I came over and spoke to (team owner) Arthur (Blank). To see his commitment, to see the respect he has in the community and in sports, it was fascinating.

When I was thinking about it, I was obviously asking questions of people I knew. I didn’t hear a bad word about Arthur. When he says he’s committed, he is. He’s respected.

I was at the FA Cup final last year. It was just my luck that Arsenal got to the final and won it. (Arsenal owner) Stan Kroenke was at the top table. Apropos of nothing, he was talking about the Rapids and MLS and Atlanta was coming in and Arthur was someone he knew from the NFL. That was without me volunteering anything. Everywhere I went, I was hearing good things. I came and visited the city and loved the city and the guys behind the organization. For me, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Q: Do you have a preference on the team’s name and mascot?

A: No. Coming back to involving the fans, that's something they will be clearly involved in. We will try to do something over the next couple of months as a naming strategy and include the fans in naming that. I've got no problem with whatever we end up coming up with as a group.

It will start (in next couple of months), will involve social media and the fans. I want to get out as well. It’s amazing we have well over 5 1/2 thousand of those. I want to get out and meet the Terminus Legion guys. I went to one Silverbacks game incognito. I was really struck by them out supporting Atlanta soccer.

Q: Do you prefer the bigger-name European designated player or signing designated players based more on what they can do rather than the potential of selling tickets?

A: As far as a designated player, my personal view is we want to have a winning team on the field. Will this player make the team a winning team? That's not just talent. Are they going to buy into Atlanta? Are they going to buy into — the important thing about Atlanta — it's a new club. It's a club that the fans will have a big say and be a part of. Will they be willing to engage with fans, go out into the community and have that team ethos?

Talent will be one thing but they have to be a player who knows what he is getting into. Don’t want prima donnas or guys who don’t fit the team ethos. The good thing is we won’t have a problem attracting players. MLS is becoming much more attractive as a league to come to. It’s amazing how many players, once it was announced I got the job, reached out and said, “I’m out of contract in 2016 and I’ve always fancied America.” I was really surprised.

Q: What do the number of season-ticket pledges mean to you in terms of interest?

A: To think you have over 16,500 pledges before there's a team name, 2 1/2 years before the season starts. We've only just got two days ago the first employee. To have that level of interest is a really good marker of the excitement and buzz that will be around this team.

From my perspective it’s great news. To have 5,500 Founder’s Club members we can engage with, we can develop with, it’s exciting news.

Q: Would that number have affected your decision?

A: No, but it did confirm the way soccer is growing. From my perspective, as I was researching, there were people telling me that perhaps Atlanta wasn't a sporting city, it hadn't supported the Thrashers. It's great because it's nailed that straight away. We don't even have to have that conversation. The proof is in the numbers and the interest. It's our job to develop that and maintain that level of interest.

Q: Do you have a timeline for hiring a coach?

A: Nothing is set in stone, but I would have thought around 2016. We won't have the players at the earliest from June 2016 onward. Doesn't mean if the right opportunity came up, we wouldn't do something differently. In the next couple of months, we will put together the timeline.

Q: Anyone in mind for the first designated player?

A: No, but hopefully one of the strengths I've got is the contacts in Europe.

Q: Where will the team practice?

A: Good question. That's something on a very long list. Thanks for giving me my first list. I think it will be somewhere else (not the Falcons organization). It will all link in with the academy, as well.

It’s something I’m looking forward to getting stuck into because we did that at Tottenham. We built a training center there. The academy and the first-team were all on one site, whereas if you go to Chelsea and Arsenal they are separate venues. We did it because we are a club that’s all about player development. We want everyone to feel a part of the club.