MARIETTA, Ga. — Following his success with Ajax, Frank de Boer came to Atlanta United looking for an opportunity to rebuild a reputation after two miserable stints at Crystal Palace and Inter Milan.
The opportunity turned more challenging than perhaps the Dutchman expected. But roughly half a year on from poor results to start the season, De Boer has fans who once clamored for his ousting now applauding his tactical nous. With Atlanta just 90 minutes away from appearing in their second straight MLS Cup final, fans are starting to understand what both De Boer and his players preached to the media in the early days of the season — they needed time.
“It’s quite easy to say, but for me it was a great difference between the last two teams that I managed, especially on the side of the board, to give you that time and space for yourself, to develop yourself, to develop your team,” De Boer told media Monday ahead of Atlanta’s Eastern Conference Final against Toronto FC (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN1/4, TVAS in Canada).
“You don’t feel the stress that they are really trying to press you, that you have to get good results. It’s a compliment for Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra and also Arthur Blank, of course, because we had a rough start.”
De Boer’s arrival on the scene in Atlanta was peculiar for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not often that a manager’s reputation dwarfs that of the club to which he arrives, but it was true in De Boer’s case. He was once one of the most famous players in the world, having played in the latter stages of World Cups and Champions Leagues. After four consecutive titles as Ajax coach, his name was bandied about some of the biggest clubs in world football.
But secondly, and more pertinent to Atlanta fans, he took over a championship team. Most managers are appointed because their predecessors failed, but De Boer assumed control of a squad that Tata Martino led to MLS Cup glory. As it turns out, leading a championship team to new heights isn’t an easy gig. But as De Boer points out, it takes time to adapt and learn.
“I knew that it’s always difficult coming to a new culture,” said De Boer. “They have to know you, I have to know the players themselves. So it always takes time. You cannot expect somebody to change in only the preseason or four weeks, four-and-a-half weeks, then start Concacaf [Champions League] directly into the competition. That you think everything is going to be easy and you’re going to win your games. No, it’s not like that.
“I always say after six months, you can normally see the hand of the manager, what he wants. I think if you won two titles and still involved in the most precious title, you can be satisfied. Again, I want to win everything.”
If anyone knows about the adaptation De Boer talks about and the difficulties that can come with it, it’s midfielder Julian Gressel. A native of Neustadt, Germany, Gressel came to the United States to play college soccer, only to find himself playing professionally under an Argentine coach in Tata Martino.
“I knew there was going to be some differences because I'm a European guy as well. I knew how difficult it was for me to adjust to Tata at first,” said Gressel. “I had to be really open-minded about those kinds of things. Now it's a bit easier for me to go back to the way I was used to it a little bit, where some other guys struggled a bit more.
“But from Frank's perspective, credit to him for speaking to a lot of guys and being open-minded himself to adjust his way of doing things, his way of training, or even tactically some games where he just came our way a little bit and realized what he had in the group and it's obviously a big credit to him.”
For as much as the new manager needed time to understand his players and how to best utilize them, Gressel said the players also needed time to understand their new manager.
“Adjustments needed to be done from both sides,” said Gressel. “Even from us players who obviously came off a very successful year playing a certain way. We were like 'Why would we change it just because a new coach is coming in?' It was obviously different in that sense where it was maybe two extremes going at each other a bit. But I think we've obviously talked a lot and found a way to be successful.”
“We've won two trophies and now maybe we're on the verge of winning another one and hopefully winning the biggest one at the end of it all. We've definitely come together. Frank has obviously adjusted. He's talked with a lot of guys. Communication has been the key factor during that tough stretch in the beginning of the year, and we've come out on the better end of it.”