Atlanta United President Darren Eales was named the MLS Executive of the Year on Thursday, reflecting the expansion team’s success on and off the field in its first season.
“It’s a big thank you for the work that all of our staff has done in putting together Atlanta United, what Arthur (Blank) has done as an owner in terms of the commitment and vision he’s had, and the fans in Atlanta with the support they’ve had,” Eales said.
Eales guided an organization that experienced the following successes in its first season:
* After securing manager Gerardo Martino, formerly coach of the Argentinian national team, the Five Stripes became the first expansion franchise since Seattle in 2009 to qualify for the playoffs.
* Atlanta United set numerous attendance records, including single-game, per-game average and total during the regular season and single-game in the playoffs.
* Eales oversaw the construction of a $60 million training facility, as well as input on the soccer aspects of the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
* The team's success on and off the field helped Atlanta land the MLS All-Star game that will be played in August.
The league chose the recipient of the award.
“It’s been 2 1/2 years in the making before trying to make sure every department is organized and has the best possible people,” Atlanta United Vice President Carlos Bocanegra said. “He really cares about every detail, from the players, to a press release, to social media. It’s well-deserved.”
Eales’ hiring was announced in September 2014. He came to Atlanta after working in the front office of Tottenham Hotspur, a club in England’s Premier League, and which helped shape his vision for what Atlanta United could become.
Eales grew up in England, but played in collegiately at West Virginia and then Brown, before playing professionally for several teams in the lower divisions in the U.S.
He returned to England and became an attorney in 2000. He eventually worked for West Bromwich Albion, another Premier League club, before joining Tottenham in 2010.
While with Tottenham Hotspur, Eales oversaw an academy that has developed several notable standouts and opened a new training center, both of which have influenced what he is doing with Atlanta United.
Eales endeared himself to Atlanta United’s supporters with his willingness to actively participate in the team’s initial grassroots marketing efforts by making appearances at pubs, bars and restaurants around Atlanta.
Their affections grew as Eales embraced social media, trolling other teams with posts on Twitter and Instagram, as well as his decision to buy a billboard in downtown Orlando to stir the pot of that rivalry before the team’s first meeting last summer.
Eales said he was confident that the team would be successful with the philosophy of using younger players and aggressive tactics.
He said what surprised him is how the city embraced the team, from the more than 55,000 who attended the inaugural game at Bobby Dodd Stadium to the more than 67,000 who attended the playoff game against Columbus. Twice the team sold more than 70,000 tickets for games, breaking the single-game record and then re-setting it at 71,874.
Throughout the season, when Atlanta United averaged 48,200, Eales made no secret of his delight in the team and its supporters disproving the notion that Atlanta isn't a great sports town. It's something he said the team would do in his first interview after accepting the job. It's rare for him to not bring it up in an interview, and he did so again when asked about winning the award.
Now, he wants to disprove the notion of the sophomore slump. He described the first season as “brilliant,” but just one step in the journey.
“Our aim is to continue growing,” he said. “Who knows what the bar is for Atlanta United and soccer in North America?”
Atlanta United has been busy in the offseason to avoid that slump. It acquired fullback Greg Garza on a permanent deal after a one-year loan from Tijuana, re-signed Jeff Larentowicz, added defenders Franco Escobar and Jose Hernandez, traded for Darlington Nagbe in a record-setting deal and is reportedly on the verge of signing Ezequiel Barco in a deal that would set an MLS record for a transfer.
“We won’t be bashful this year,” Eales said. “We got to the playoffs last year, and this year we want to challenge for the Cup. It will be difficult because the best team in MLS history won it last year.”