For Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam, Atlanta United vs. FC Cincinnati marks reunion of an understated relationship

As players, Atlanta United coach Frank de Boer and FC Cincinnati manager Jaap Stam knew each other's games intimately as center-back partners for the Dutch national team, starting 13 matches together between the 1998 World Cup and 2000 and 2004 European Championships.

"Even without speaking, we knew what the other one was going to do," Stam said Tuesday, ahead of the their teams' meeting on Thursday morning in the second game of Group E play at the MLS is Back Tournament. "What his positioning was on the ball, in his movement. So that was very clear."

The off-the-field relationship has been more distant, at least from a literal sense.

It's not animosity between the two men, who together played at some of the most famous clubs across Europe during their careers. It's just their career paths never matched up, and they played in a time before social media made long-distance friendships easy to manage.

De Boer and Stam began in opposite camps of the Dutch power struggle at Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, respectively. As De Boer moved on to Barcelona, Stam went to Manchester United, and so on and so on.

Stam actually finished his playing career at Ajax, de Boer's boyhood club, but by that time de Boer was several years retired. Then de Boer took over as Ajax manager in 2010, two years after Stam hung up his own boots.

Frank de Boer, left, and Jaap Stam, right, look on as Dutch national teammate Arthur Numan looks into the camera during a call for a team photo shoot prior to the 1998 FIFA World Cup | Reuters

"That’s how it goes sometimes in soccer," Stam said. "When you’re meeting up, when you’re playing together in a certain team, in a national team, your relationship is very good. But eventually everybody goes his own way and the communication abates at times."

The two will be reunited in Orlando on Thursday morning when de Boer's Atlanta United side face off with Stam's FC Cincinnati in the second round of group games at the MLS is Back Tournament (9 am ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada). After both teams tasted defeats in their tournament openers, there will be little room for charity between former teammates.

On Tuesday, de Boer said the pair had still not spoken since Stam made his coronavirus-delayed arrival in the United States, in part just because of the all-consuming nature of coaching. That has to be particularly true on Stam's end, arriving as Cincinnati's third permanent head coach in only 15 months since beginning life in MLS. 

De Boer's early challenge at Atlanta United in 2019 was different in nature, but came with its own stresses of having to live up to the lofty standard set by outgoing MLS Cup winning manager Tata Martino. The two were scheduled to speak together for an interview on Dutch television on Wednesday morning. 

"That’s probably the first time I can speak to him," de Boer said. "It is what it is. I think he’s focused. He has a lot on his mind. He’s just come in here, and I think he has a lot of work to do, like me also. So we don’t really have time to talk to each other."

Even so, when the two men meet together on the pitch Thursday morning, they expect their mutual understanding to resurface.

"I’m sure when we meet up on Thursday, the banter and the communication is there again, and it’s like we’ve never been apart," Stam said. "The relationship in general, it’s always been good. And now to meet up and to have play against each other, it is something special."