As a founding executive, charismatic public face and central figure in the club’s spectacular arrival in MLS, Darren Eales figures to be a tough act to follow at Atlanta United.
Steve Cannon, CEO of the Five Stripes’ parent company, Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment, readily admitted as much on Thursday as he updated reporters on the process of finding a successor in the wake of Eales’ departure for Newcastle United.
“Look, Darren is a unique personality,” said Cannon of the Englishman on a video call. “He's just really competent at what he does, really likable, a fun guy with a bunch of personality and he happens to be great in front of a camera or a microphone or an Instagram, right? So I'm not going to saddle Darren’s successor with an expectation that you need to be an Instagram star. You need to be a great leader. You need to have a vision to build on what Darren has started … We want to have a championship ball club, we want to compete every single year, we want to run a great business.
“If he's great and funny and can sing karaoke, that's a Lucky Strike extra, we'll take that, but that's not going to be a job requirement.”
ATLUTD will pay formal tribute to Eales, an architect of both their high-octane on-field identity and the large-scale economic success it inspired, at an upcoming home match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The work of replacing his leadership will take longer, perhaps significantly so.
Cannon said the aim is to identify their next president by year’s end, though later added that the search firm that will lead the process has not yet been selected. Owner Arthur Blank & Co. will not be rushed by arbitrary deadlines or “self-inflicted urgency,” he posited, with technical director Carlos Bocanegra expected to provide a steady hand at the till in the meantime.
“The vision for an attacking ball club that plays a really forward, fast, engaging style of soccer, that's our brand. In fact, the good news is that Carlos and Darren really codified in writing the kind of ball club that we want to be, and Arthur buys into that, I buy into that,” said Cannon. “We're not going to reinvent who we are and go off to a completely different style. We know what we want. It's been very successful, and now it's our job to deliver on that.”
Might this next chapter feature Garth Lagerwey?
The Seattle Sounders’ general manager and president of soccer is an influential figure at perhaps the only MLS club that can claim to be ahead of Atlanta in multiple categories, and recent reports suggest he’s approaching the end of his current contract. Though Cannon didn’t mention him proactively, his response to a question about the highly respected executive and former MLS goalkeeper probably won’t quell the speculation that has already erupted.
“I don't know Mr. Lagerwey,” said Cannon when asked about the groundswell of ATLUTD supporters who’ve already broadcast their hankering for the Sounders exec. “We don't [even] have the search firm identified; pretty early in that process. We will probably see Mr. Lagerwey, but I don't know.
"And it's great that our fans are already sounding off. It's another health indicator that they care deeply about this club, and they've got something to say about it. The day that the supporters kind of get quiet is the day I start to worry, so I'm happy they're sounding off and I'll keep you posted as we progress through this, but we haven't yet even retained a search firm.”
Setting the bar high
More generally, the Five Stripes plan to persist with their ambitious activity in the international transfer market, with a particular focus on talented young South Americans with sell-on potential. They aim to further extend their MLS-leading attendance numbers and their impressive reach within their metropolitan area and beyond. Blank is just as committed, both personally and financially, as he was at the start of his unexpected soccer blockbuster.
“From a business standpoint, we're very pleased and we want to continue to be the standard bearer in Major League Soccer for what good looks like,” said Cannon, “from ticket sales, suite sales, sponsorship, voice of the fan and how we take care of them, how involved our supporters and passionate they are in creating an exceptional environment, kit sales. So we aspire to win the game on the business side, and set the standard.
“Being at the top of the table on the pitch, that's one thing. We want to be the standard bearer on the business side every single year as well.”
Getting back to championship contention
Atlanta fully expect head coach Gonzalo Pineda and his staff to surmount the 2022 difficulties that have left the 2018 MLS Cup winners third from bottom in the Eastern Conference standings with a 6W-9L-6D record, and navigate a path back to legitimate MLS Cup contention.
“Arthur has a very high expectation,” said Cannon. “He sets the bar very, very high in every single thing that he does. So he's not satisfied with where we are in the table. He lives these ups and downs and he lives them very personally. After a loss he's sending out texts to the team, cheering them up or high-fiving them when we have a great result.
“So Arthur is intimately involved with this. He is fully vested in our team, in our players, in how we do. This is not just an arm's length kind of a thing for Arthur Blank. So yes, he's frustrated with where we are now. He understands that in a game, certainly with both football and soccer, injuries happened, injuries can stand in the way of kind of building that chemistry and the continuity that you need to win ball games week in and week out. It's a long, long season for Major League Soccer. So net of all of that is Arthur is fully behind our organization. He's behind our coach. He's behind our team.”