AFC Ajax, or Ajax Amsterdam, or really just "Ajax" because when you say the word "Ajax" in the context of a soccer discussion you really only mean one thing (apologies to Ajax Cape Town), are one of the world's biggest, best, and most successful clubs. Let's get that established here at the start.
They have won 33 Eredivise titles, the most in Dutch history (PSV are second with 24). They have won 18 KNVB Cups, most in Dutch history (Feyenoord are second with 13). They have won four Champions League titles, sixth most in European history – more than Manchester United, or Juventus, or Borussia Dortmund, or all the great clubs of London combined.
There is an Ajax museum. There are Ajax documentaries. Just about every great club team in European soccer history featured a player or coach who'd got their schooling in Amsterdam. It is the Sorbonne for footballers.
"Ajax" means something more than that, though. It's more than just titles and an education. Saying "They play like Ajax" or "They're a club like Ajax" or "They're trying to be the Ajax of MLS" is a kind of synecdoche, an indicator that they're trying to do more than just ruthlessly win title after title. "Ajax" means you play a certain way, and you play certain types of players, and you have a certain type of ethos and culture in regards to how you try to win soccer games and who you have trying to win those games for you.
When Frank de Boer was first linked with the Atlanta United job last week, it seemed like people had – willfully, I guess? – forgotten that. Or ignored it. So let me forefront it here:
- De Boer played for Ajax, at every level, for 15 years from 1984-1999
- De Boer then went to Barcelona for four years
- after retiring as a player he went back to Ajax in 2007 to coach in the youth set-up
- in 2008 he also signed on as the Dutch national team assistant, staying through their runner-up finish at the 2010 World Cup
- then he took over as Ajax manager for six years
De Boer guided Ajax from 2010 through 2016, and won four league titles in that time. Over the last 20 years he's won twice as many titles as all other Ajax managers combined.
Here is a partial list of players Ajax developed, to one degree or another, and then sold on during his tenure:
- Luis Suarez
- Christian Eriksen
- Jan Vertonghen
- Toby Alderweireld
- Siem de Jong
- Arkadiusz Milik
- Daley Blind
- Jasper Cillessen
I think it's entirely fair to say that De Boer failed at his next two stops after Ajax, with Inter Milan in 2016 and Crystal Palace in 2017. I also think it's fair to say that 14 games for Inter (especially that version of Inter, coming off a summer of dysfunction and half a decade of directionless flailing) shouldn't overshadow six years at Ajax. And that's definitely true for five games with Crystal Palace.
I put more weight on the larger sample size. Smartly, so did the Atlanta United front office. De Boer was announced as the club's second-ever head coach on Sunday, and it makes sense, because Ajax are basically the club Atlanta want to be. Talk to anyone who's been involved with the Five Stripes, or just listen to any interview with someone from ownership on down... it's about playing a certain way, developing and selling young players, winning titles, becoming both a destination and a waypoint for elite talent.
This is not a guarantee that de Boer will be successful. He stubbornly played certain players out of position for Inter (IMO of course), which frustrated the fanbase to no end. And he stubbornly attempted to play dogmatic rather than pragmatic soccer with Crystal Palace even on the road in places like Liverpool. Think about Patrick Vieira refusing to have his NYCFC team do anything but attempt to possess the ball when running into the RBNY high pressing woodchipper, and subsequently losing 4-0 – De Boer's Atlanta will, with damn near 100 percent certainty, have a couple of performances like that (though they'll do it while playing out of a back 3 instead of a back 4).
Maybe that stubbornness will be his undoing for the third time. There's a not insignificant chance that'll be the case.
But Ajax means something on the world stage, and Frank de Boer is the most successful Ajax manager in nearly a quarter century. And Atlanta United just hired him.
That means something, too.