Stejskal: How a former Orlando, Atlanta exec is shaping Inter Miami

Minutes after Atlanta United lifted MLS Cup 2018 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as a beaming Michael Parkhurst drowned a member of the club’s PR staff in beer and a be-goggled Josef Martinez sprayed everyone and everything around him with champagne, Paul McDonough walked — almost entirely unnoticed — along a backwall of the Five Stripes’ locker room.

Though he’d left the club a few months before to become sporting director of Inter Miami, McDonough traveled back to Georgia for the league final last December. The former college assistant coach, player agent and Orlando City exec was an Atlanta VP from January 2016 until last August, as responsible as anyone for building the roster that turned heads in Year 1 and raced to the title in Year 2. He wasn’t about to miss their potential coronation.

So, in the moments after the Five Stripes beat Portland to win their first major trophy, McDonough joined the celebration, hanging on the periphery, conscious not to overstep his bounds, hugging a player here, moving into a backroom there, smiling all the way.

If things go according to plan, he’ll soon be throwing that same kind of party in South Florida.

“In Atlanta, the ambition was known right out of the gate: We were going to try to be competitive from Day 1,” McDonough told last week. “We spent that way, that was the approach, to be very competitive in Year 1 but not go crazy so that we could keep the roster together and make a serious push in Year 2. And look, it worked out perfectly. And this in Miami, the ambition will be very much the same.”

Most of the news about Inter Miami since their January 2018 expansion announcement has revolved around where they’ll play. Owners Jorge Mas and David Beckham announced last week that the incoming expansion club will play at least their first two seasons at a temporary stadium at the site of Lockhart Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale, where they’ll build a permanent training facility and academy center. The plan is to eventually move to Miami Freedom Park, a larger mixed-use development proposed by the club at the site of what’s now Melreese Park in Miami. City officials and the club are currently negotiating a 99-year lease for the land, with the terms expected to be sent to city commissioners for a vote later in 2019.

Of course, a stadium is far from the only pressing issue facing McDonough and Inter Miami, who are just 11 months from their first match. Hiring a coach, building an entire MLS roster, starting and staffing a USL League One team in time for the 2020 season and building an academy remain. Thankfully for Miami, McDonough is something of an expert at this. This is the third time the Massachusetts native has shepherded a club into MLS in the last five years. He’s got more experience building MLS expansion teams than literally anyone else in the entire world. And he’s got a decent track record.

Stejskal: How a former Orlando, Atlanta exec is shaping Inter Miami -

A rendering of the proposed setup at Lockhart Stadium | Inter Miami CF

After spending more than a decade as an assistant coach at UConn, South Carolina and Wake Forest, and five years as an agent representing American players, McDonough moved into his first front office job in January 2014 as Orlando City’s VP of soccer operations. He was tapped to build the Lions as they transitioned from USL into MLS ahead of their 2015 debut. That first year wasn’t perfect, but McDonough helped land a global star in Kaká, nabbed a promising young piece in the SuperDraft in Cyle Larin and constructed a roster that finished just one spot and five points out of the playoffs with a 12-14-8 record, still the club’s best-ever mark in MLS. From the outside looking in, it seemed like Orlando was reasonably in line with their three-year plan to become a legitimate MLS Cup contender.

Then the Lions shook everything up. The club brought in Armando Carneiro as their chief soccer officer in November 2015, a move that demoted McDonough. A little over a month later, he left the club. It only took a week for him to land on his feet in Atlanta. There he worked with club president Darren Eales, VP of soccer operations Carlos Bocanegra and, eventually, head coach Tata Martino to turn the team into a juggernaut. The money helped, of course, making it possible for Atlanta to land Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Tito Villalba that first season. But the ability of the club to squeeze everything they could out of every roster building mechanism took them over the top, allowing them to pair Almiron, Martinez and Villalba with players like Parkhurst, Brad Guzan, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Julian Gressel, Carlos Carmona, Jeff Larentowicz, Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco.

McDonough’s experiences at both clubs are informing how he’ll lead Miami, who will look a lot more like Atlanta than Orlando in terms of how they'll spend out of the gate. McDonough confirmed the club will use all three Designated Player spots in their first season in the league. He’d like to have at least two of those DPs on the books by the time the 2020 campaign begins. A third could be on the roster at that time, too, though McDonough left the door open for that piece to join next summer.

The club is actively scouting around the world, with McDonough, technical director Kurt Schmid, a longtime scout with Seattle and the LA Galaxy, and director of soccer operations Niki Budalic, formerly Orlando City’s GM, racking up the frequent flyer miles to watch games on several continents in recent weeks. They’re not currently involved in negotiations with any players, but McDonough said they are having “informal discussions” regarding several. It wouldn’t be surprising if they began to reel in signings over the summer.

Miami, who have already been connected to all manner of huge names, will spend on those signings. The club won’t hesitate to shell out big-time transfer fees or salaries on the right players, though there is some question about exactly what profile of star they’ll shoot for. Will they go for a big name like Orlando did with Kaká? Will they spend on younger, lower-profile players who are capable of dominating MLS like Atlanta did with Almiron and Martinez? Will they blend both approaches?  

McDonough didn’t have a firm answer to those questions. He made one thing clear, however: If Miami do sign a player like Kaká, they’ll be sure to find him at least one teammate who can easily relate to his experiences on the world stage and help ease his burden both on and off the field.

“I think the thing with Atlanta, the young DPs all were similar age and I think that was really, really important,” he said. “Targeted Allocation Money allowed us to build more of a balanced team when you had Chris McCann, Carlos Carmona, Leandro, Guzan and Parkhurst as our main guys, so the experiences and the balance in age was better for Atlanta. Whereas in Orlando, you had Kaká and a bunch of young kids we were trying to build around. And in all honesty, it probably just wasn’t fair to Kaká. You look back on it and that’s my concern, if I brought one big DP in, I would need to bring some guys in that had experiences that mean they’re basically allowed to be in the same dressing room as that guy, that have the experiences of playing in big games at big clubs and things like that.”

Miami are looking at a slightly longer timeline for naming a head coach. McDonough is fielding calls about potential candidates but isn’t feeling any pressure to rush into a hire; he’d be happy if the club have someone in place by October. Tactics will of course be a main concern, with McDonough hammering home the notion that Miami want to play “in an attractive attacking style.” Equally important is that the manager fits the diverse South Florida market and — this part is especially significant — has experience managing big personalities.

The big-money signings Miami are likely to make aren’t always the easiest to keep engaged. McDonough saw how ex-Argentina and Barcelona manager Martino, who left Atlanta for the Mexico national team this offseason but still talks with McDonough once or twice a week, was able to get the most out of his South American stars with the Five Stripes. He wants to recreate that in Miami.

“It’s super, super important that we get someone that can handle the pressure and the big personalities that potentially could be here,” he said.

After his stints in Orlando and Atlanta, McDonough knows how and how not to build a successful expansion team. He’s lived the highs and lows, made smart decisions and mistakes. He’s got some unique challenges to deal with in his new gig, but plenty of resources at his disposal, too. If he can execute properly, he knows Inter Miami should thrive where so many others in South Florida have failed.

“Look, this is really big challenge. Professional soccer in South Florida, it’s been a mess for quite a while,” he said. “I tell everyone, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have to pick a direction and make decisions that’s best for the club and really what’s going to be best for soccer in South Florida. And they’re all kind of waiting to see if we deliver on what we say. I tell the guys, it’s just really, really important that whatever we say we’re going to do, we do well, and we follow through. We have to. We’re going to be the stewards of soccer in South Florida. We have to do this right.”