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MLS Atlanta plotting out roadmap for success ahead of 2017 launch


Photo courtesy of MLS Atlanta


Charged with building a brand new club from scratch, Carlos Bocanegra and Darren Eales know exactly what they’ve gotten themselves into.

The duo has been tasked with creating a team, an experience, a brand. But for the two, the process of building MLS Atlanta is about so much more; it’s about building a culture all their own.

As the team’s president and technical director, respectively, Eales and Bocanegra face many choices ahead, everything from hiring a coach to selecting players to choosing what types of food to serve at the club’s inaugural match in 2017.

For the pair, each and every one of those decision comes with consequences, but each is met head on with considerable enthusiasm. For Bocanegra, every decision made has an impact, one that can help institute something special, something new, in a city that the pair believes has all the makings of America’s next great soccer city.

“It’s all about the culture that we create,” Bocanegra told SBI. “With Darren, myself and all the people that are involved so far, we’re really trying to create the culture and that’s going to speak volumes for us, regardless of names or colors or anything like that. You take the Portland Timbers for example, they have an identity and their fan base. Seattle, same thing. LA Galaxy is a little bit different, but they have their own identity and fan base.

“We want to create the culture, a good culture, and a great tradition for this club and I think that’s the most important thing.”

For MLS Atlanta, which hopes to announce its name ahead of the July Gold Cup semifinals in Atlanta, that culture starts at the top with two men that come from vastly different soccer backgrounds with extremely similar goals.

Eales, a former executive at Tottenham, returns to a country where he attended college and played a professional career. Bocanegra, widely regarded as one of Major League Soccer and the U.S. Men’s National Team’s best defenders and leaders, brings a connection to the league that, for many, has proven to be a puzzle impossible to unlock.

For Bocanegra, a winning team starts from the ground up, as the team is hoping to have an academy plan put in place “over the next couple of months”.

As a market that has produced considerable MLS talent, such as Clint Mathis, Josh Wolff, Sean Johnson and Ricardo Clark, Bocanegra feels that the Atlanta area has plenty of diamonds ready to be unearthed by a well-run MLS club.

“We’re very big on trying to develop the homegrown players,” Bocanegra said. “One, because it obviously helps with the salary cap with the homegrown players in this league, but two, we feel like we have a great market in the Southeast here to attract young players and push them through the system to really build them up to our first team. That’s going to be a big goal of ours. We want local talent. We want the fans to be able to identify with the players on the field.

“We want to make sure that we come in and set the standard high. We want to build, not only for our club, but for the greater Atlanta area and all of the Southeast. The level of coaching, we want to bring it up with the coaching education courses and just really help to lift soccer in Georgia and across America and set that high standard. Those are a few of our goals, just from the beginning.”

Like Bocanegra said, setting up an academy system is just one stop on the team’s road map. Eales says the team is currently in the process of settling on a training ground, while the duo has also had discussions regarding a USL affiliate.

However, one of the most important steps on the road to success comes in the naming of a head coach. For Eales, that decision is one that will likely come in Summer 2016. Although the Englishman did admit that the decision could come sooner or later depending on circumstances, next summer is the target, giving the organization plenty of time to find the right guy at the right time that fits the intricacies and nuances of MLS play.

“It’s important that they’re a developer of players,” Eales said. “If you look at MLS itself, with the salary cap environment, you can’t afford to take a coach that’s someone that’s used to just basically buying players. That sort of manager, I don’t want to pigeonhole any one in the past that I’ve worked with, but that type of manager that goes into the transfer market and expects to new players if these ones aren’t working. We need a coach, and someone who can develop players.

“We want someone who believes in MLS and that’s going to come from everyone from players to the manager. We want pioneers who see the MLS as a growing league and buy into the fact that this is a growing league and want to succeed. It’s important that, whoever the head coach is, that they understand that they’re here for the right reasons, that they want MLS to be a success and, in particular, they see Atlanta as a real opportunity to be a top club in the future.”

Both Eales and Bocanegra know that team’s status as a top club starts with leadership, but ultimately ends with the players on the field, which is why preparations are already being made in terms of player signings.

On one hand, Eales brings years of European experience, connections and knowledge, while on the other, Bocanegra adds more relationships, from both MLS and abroad, than one can count.

That blend of knowledge is something that has been focused on and will be focused on heavily as player acquisitions begin to become more of a focal point before the turn of the calendar.

“Carlos and I are talking now everyday because this is something that we’re going to be focusing on going forward,” Eales said. “I think it’s really going to ramp up from Christmas onwards, because I think from the second half of next year is when we’ll start to start hiring our own scouts and start working on our scouting network of players that we want to look at for MLS Atlanta, whether we sign them in Summer 2016 or if we have to sign them in January 2017, we’re going to start working on that.

“The interesting thing that I’ve noticed so far is that, since I was announced as the technical director here,” Bocanegra added, “I’ve had a lot of players reach out to me that I’ve played with in the past about interest in Atlanta, which has been great. Christmas time, January is when I think we’ll really start ramping up our scouting network. We’re watching now. We’ve spoken to people who are watching already.”

While Bocanegra and Eales continue to watch, they will also have to wait nearly two years to see the fruits of their labor. Along the way, they know they will be challenges, especially as an expansion team, but the two are looking forward to the preparations that come with building something completely new, and meeting those challenges head on.

“We’ve had 10 expansion teams in the last 10 years and only one, Seattle, has made the playoffs (in their first season),” Eales said. “They made the playoffs by winning their last game of the season. Look, there is no surprise in that. It’s difficult because you’re trying to create a whole team and chemistry from, in essence, two months before you start playing. You have to get all those pieces together, and I think that will be the challenge.

“Carlos and I have thought long and hard about it. We know the challenge is to try and get a team together and try to get that team chemistry from scratch.”

“We have no players at all,” added Bocanegra. “We don’t have the advantage of having a minor league franchise or a USL franchise beforehand, so we’re going to be very methodical and do a lot of research and put in a lot of time and effort to get it right from the start on the field because we have such great fan support and all those things, which is already a good start for us. Now, we have to do our best to get it right on the field, and that’s going to be a big challenge, but it’s something we’re excited about and really looking forward to.”


  1. “…we’re really trying to create the culture and that’s going to speak volumes for us…”

    It’s already speaking volumes. Bunch a dorks. Begging supporters of Florida NASL clubs to support MLS Atlanta, squatting at Silverbacks games, claiming to represent entire states in the Southeast that already have clubs.

    Never seen such a perfect combination of arrogance and cluelessness.

    • You are utterly clueless… the Braves are moving out of downtown that exact year to a place you can’t take mass transportation to… this is going to be the only game “in town” (save the Atlanta Dream) during the Summer.

      The have already sold like 20K seat licenses… The entire gentrified downtown neighborhoods are all absolutely salivating at this not to mention suprisingly the gay population and the black population…. I can promise you that MLS ATL is going to be a MONSTEROUS SUCCESS…

      Oh and to those making fun of the above picture… it was at an MLS ATL social event welcoming Boca to town… It was not some weird marketing team photo op…

      • Well you haven’t explained why I’m clueless. So now Braves fans will decide they like soccer and won’t bother traveling to the suburbs to watch baseball? The Braves built a new stadium even though their current home is only twenty years old because they need something to spark attendance and interest. Winning the NL East 14 years in a row with a team stacked with future hall of famers couldn’t do it!

        The hockey team moved away, the Hawks have generally been near the bottom of the NBA in attendance. Even this season with one of the best teams in the league, they are in the bottom half. Atlanta is an absolutely terrible sports town.

        Plus they haven’t sold 20k season tickets. People put down $50 as a deposit on future season tickets. How many of those will actually sell in 2017 (or in the future) is another story.

      • The Braves are moving to where their is the biggest baseball hotbed in the country… Cobb County… It is suburbia…they are now completely alienating their fanbase to the south i places like Newnan, McDonough, Peachtree City etc…

        As for the baseball fans turning to soccer… that was not what I was saying… I was saying all the in town people (there are a bunch) who enjoy taking in a sporting event they can take Marta too will now come to MLS ATL games..

        Also… Atlanta is a transient city… so people don’t go to NBA games or NFL games because they wath their hometown team their their fathers cared about…. News Flash… their fathers don’t have a favorite soccer team… They will adopt MLS ATL… it is going to explode… just wait…

      • Ok, I don’t want logic to interfere with your boundless enthusiasm so I guess we’ll just agree to disagree.

      • Sorry but you are clueless and it is easy to pick apart your concerns.

        Let’s start with the city in general. The market is very spread out with lots of transportation issues and not a lot of mass transit solutions. For teams playing 41 or 81 home games a year, many on weeknights with school or work the next day, it’s hard to convince the people in Douglasville, Cartersville, Gainesville, Loganville, etc to come downtown. Further, many of the people in the Atlanta area are transplants. These individuals bring with them years of loyalties to other professional teams. Before leaving town the Thrashers were sometimes playing in front of audiences of locals where maybe a majority of fans were cheering for the other team.

        Now as for specific sport problems, starting with the obvious one, hockey. Besides the fact that many of the hockey fans in Atlanta were already locked into other teams, the truth is there were a nearly insurmountable number of obstacles to success. Because of the nature of their TV contracts and the salary structures for the players, NHL teams end up having to charge absurd prices for season ticket holders. Sure, you could get a cheap ticket on game day outside Philips Arena, but that’s not how you build/maintain a fan base. Success sure would have helped but you had a complete clusterF in upper management nearly the entire time the Thrashers were here; they ownership group was practically always suing EACH OTHER. Finally, youth hockey is VERY expensive and is very small in this area which made the low level, personal connections tenuous at best.

        What about the Hawks? Well, ownership hasn’t been much better there, but the truth is that the franchise has never done a great job of connecting with the youth in this market (and what connections existed were solely on the inner city level). Considering a team that before this year had never even been to the conference finals (the 1970 Hawks made it to the Western Division finals when the league was far smaller), there was no track record of success. They did average 93% of capacity at home this year, not great, but way up from the mid 70s last year, so the trend is in the right direction.

        How ’bout them Braves? Well it’s worth remembering that in the 1990s they did average the 2nd highest attendance in the National League. Attendance has been a bit more modest recently (remember the spread out fanbase and the large number of games – part of the justification for the relocation to Cobb County) but it has been VERY stable around 30K per game since 2003 with weekends often being far above the number (versus weeknights where 20K may be a good crowd).

        So now, what does soccer have going for it? With only 17 (or 16 or 18 – whatever it ends up being) league home games, mostly on weekends (and many in the summer), the specter of an hour or more drive isn’t quite as daunting, so the spread out nature is less important. The brief history of MLS, relative to the other major pro leagues, doesn’t allow for the locals to be deeply loyal to another club. Soccer fandom by its nature is different than other sports and there’s a real potential here (by building the right way like they’re trying to do) to create community. The youth soccer presence helps as well; it is not an exaggeration to say that north Georgia has one of the largest per capita youth soccer bases and it’s very successful (nearly every year multiple national titles are won by Atlanta area clubs). Does it guarantee attendance of fanship? Of course not but it certainly provides a conduit for it. And yes, local players help (though in modest terms); the roar here in Atlanta for the Falcons to draft UGa’s Gurley this year was loud and ultimately bitter when they did not.

        The bottom line is that, Atlanta may not be a perfect market, but its a market that has a tremendous upside for soccer. Basketball fans in many markets are fair weather and other sports are drawing on three or more generations of history and connections, something Atlanta simply cannot claim as its history in professional sports is short. The same city of Seattle that produces enormous crowds in soccer had mediocre basketball attendance before the Sonics left (only 4 years with sellouts and turnstile counts sometimes half what the paid attendance was).

        < end novella >

      • as an Atlantan I’m so glad you typed all of that so I didn’t have to; was seriously about to make just about all of those points. well said. not to mention there are FAR worse sports towns…

      • Well in!

        Living in Atlanta now, I’m one of those “founders” that paid $50 for…the ability to say I’m a founder. Who knows if I’ll buy season tickets?

        And speaking of loyalty, I was born in Philly, adopted all of those teams as mine, but moved to DC when I was 7. So when MLS came around, I became a DCU fan. I’ll see what happens in 2017. I’m sure there are plenty of people here that haven’t paid attention to MLS or adopted a team.

      • Not surprising that basketball attendance was down in the four years before they left, considering they’d been sold to a OKC businessman who everyone knew was doing his best to move the team out of town.

      • @slowleftarm

        You said “How many of those will actually sell in 2017 (or in the future) is another story.”

        Minimum 25k season ticket holders will come from the deposits. The conversion rate is always 110% to 140% for expansion MLS clubs. Probably more because they still have 2 years until kick-off.

    • A lot of that narrative is bogus. NBA was middle of the pack until this season, when it took a big leap forward. (Winning + a deep playoff run will do that.)

      Thrashers were owned by idiots who never wanted the team in the first place (it was a package deal with the Hawks) but it was well supported until people figured realized that the team was being left to decay, and then to be sold. Which it was, after fans started voting against the owners with their feet.

      Falcons actually do pretty well in terms of attendance, despite not spectacular results the last few seasons. A tough ticket when they’re winning, decent crowds when not. Braves have drawn well, but regionally, which means that weekend games are sellouts but weeknight games are tough because you couldn’t get people driving in from Macon, Chattanooga and Augusta for those. (I am not a fan of the move to the ‘burbs and think it’s going to backfire in multiple ways.)

      And yes, with all of those, you suffer from Atlanta being a city of transplants who will still support the Celtics, Cubs or Pats instead of the locals. But MLS has relatively little history, and there will be few bringing allegiances with them. Plus the market skews young. That’s the secret sauce here.

    • Seriously, you’re a broken fricken record. You don’t actually know what you’re talking about. Atlanta fans support winning teams very well. Owners who obviously don’t care about the team don’t get support. But that’s true everywhere in all sports.

  2. I’m really disappointed that Boca decided not to get into coaching. He has the right personality for it and is one of very few Americans who have spent a lot of time playing at the highest levels.

  3. There’s a bunch of HUGE soccer clubs in Georgia, and they’re almost all centered in Atlanta…just off the top of my head, Norcross, GSA, Concorde…these clubs pour prospects forth into the college ranks. Bunch more in northern Florida, and South Carolina has CESA and South Carolina United, which probably have 10K players or close between the two of them, along with some smaller but still-quality clubs like Discoveries up in Rock Hill, Furman United in Greenville, CASA in Clemson-Anderson (about an hour from Atlanta), and if you keep going up I-85 you can dip into the giant-sized CSA right up the road in Charlotte. There’s a bunch more clubs up in the Triangle in North Carolina that are currently feeding the Carolina Railhawks.

    Bottom line is there’s a pool of 50,000+ youth players between those clubs nobody else has really tapped into. If they’re looking for players, trust me, that area has some serious players. People just do not realize how huge the youth system is in the I-85 corridor from Atlanta-Greenville-Charlotte, in particular. There’s a reason why the ACC is easily the nation’s best soccer conference and it’s because they’re dipping into that pool. A couple years ago, in fact, UNC played the U of Charlotte 49ers for the national title – again, not a coincidence.

    • Never thought soccer was so big in the south. I wish Atlanta the best and if Arthur blanks truly loves soccer,you guys should get a SSS in less than 10 years.
      Any future development on the braves park, what will Atlanta do with the land.
      I read they plan to make a football stadium for college right, why not join the bid and make it soccer and football just like in Houston.
      Any news on the team name? I have a feeling it’s going to be Atlanta empire with a firebird in the logo or a blackheart.

      • The City has pretyt much decided that the Braves stadium will be mixed use land unles Georgia State buys it and turns it into a football stadium…

        The Falcons new stadium is absolutely being designed with soccer in mind… it will not feel the way that Gillette feels… Much more intimate.

      • In regards to moving into the space at the old Turner Field where the Braves are moving out of soon, it’s a terrible location in that there is no nearby metro/Marta access, parking was a mess, and smack in the middle of the ghetto.

        A better spot would be the old GM plant off I-285 which is right next to the Chamblee Marta station and easy to access for all the young 20-30 something’s living in Brookhaven and Buckhead.

    • All great points. I think Georgia is top 10 in terms of the number of registered youth players. There’s also NASA, UFA, the list goes on… ODP is pretty big here, too.

    • There’s also Georgia United and Concorde Fire Development Academies, which are two of the best non-MLS DA programs in the country. They regularly play against and beat MLS academy teams, and several of the players playing for the teams have received youth national team call-ups.

      The most intriguing part of the Southeastern talent landscape is the fact that all the clubs mentioned here only encompass around 60-70 percent of the top talent in the area. There’s a very high population of outstanding players whose families don’t have the means to pay for their kids to play club soccer, and with the Hispanic population in Atlanta and the South continuing to grow, that number is only increasing. This MLS academy will have to tap into that talent pool as well to be as big a success as it can be.

      • Yeah, I also coached some school ball and I was amazed at some of the sleepers I turned up…most of them were Latin but I also turned up some African players as well. Most of those sleepers were pure yard-ballers who’d played years of knock-arounds with brothers and uncles and cousins…they had foot skills, but not much organized soccer experience, but once you got those guys going it was amazing how good some of them turned out to be. The schools were heavily driven by the clubs – mostly CESA and Furman, in Greenville – but some of the yard-ballers ended up being better than the club players. (Of course, some of those kids played in those indoor leagues, the kind where there was some for-money gambling going on on those games, and some of those kids were straight-up gladiators. I’ve seen a couple of those games, and it was…scary intense, kind of like cockfighting, just with kids playing soccer.)

        The talent coming out of the area schools is pretty indicative. In Greenville, Furman’s had guys like Clint Dempsey, Ricardo Clarke, Shea Salinas, Walker Zimmerman, and a boatload of others, whereas Clemson has had guys like Stuart Holden, Gooch, and the last couple of years, they had Thomas McNamara (Chivas USA, now NYCFC) and Amadou Dia (Sporting KC). Laundry lists like that in a lot of schools up and down some of the schools in the Southeast, especially ACC schools.

        That talent pool is as strong as anybody’s…and nobody was plugged into it. I think Atlanta, if they get their youth academy right, is going to be heavy in young talent very quickly. They’re certainly in one of the best talent pools in the US.

  4. MLS should let expansion teams recruit players and build a team 2 seasons before.
    For example, Atlanta enters 2017 but by now they should have a coach and most of their staff. Not only the coach but some players as well and be traveling around the world recruiting talent and playing friendlies.
    Why make an expansion team weak and horrible for their fans, it kills the season by halfway.
    Same thing with Miami, LA2, they should be already looking for a coach, front office people and starting a reserve team that could be traveling around the world practicing what their coach wants.
    It’s easier for the fans and team, and why not, have the name ready as well.
    Imagine Atlanta having their team name by now, some recruited talent, a coach and traveling around the world, learning the beautiful game. Same thing for LA2 and Miami 🙂

    • I truly hope you’re being sarcastic……
      Why would a player leave a club they’re playing on to play for a newly formed “reserve team”? What teams would this “reserve team” play against? Would that really be helpful to a player’s fitness; to only play meaningless scrimmages, essentially, for 2 years? Sure, there should be some form of front office, as there already appears to be. The coach should be hired about a year in advance at most; with the players coming within that year window as well, (generally closer to a couple months out for fitness reasons).

      • No, I’m being realistic. 2 to 3 years won’t kill them.
        Get young players with real skills and winning mentality. Recruit players from college and pay them enough for them to stay and take an adventure they will never regret. That’s why you gotta recruit the best you find.
        The team will travel around the world, practice in European and South American grounds. Attend games from Spain to Argentina.
        Make them eat and sh*t soccer. The three S S S of life for a soccer player, sleep, soccer, sleep.
        Put soccer in their mind, in their blood, in their food. Make them write reflected essays every once a month on what they have learned of soccer.
        Make them watch soccer every single day and when they enter MLS, they will not be an expansion team.
        Would you do it, I would. Pay me and I’ll be there at age 18 or even 17.

      • So guys with “winning mentalities” will sign up to sit around and do nothing for 2-3 years? Wow.

      • Sorry I hadn’t read your whole post. They won’t sit around and do nothing because they’ll be writing reflective essays on soccer. That changes everything.

      • hahaha +1

        this Injury Time guy has no grasp on the BUSINESS that is PROFESSIONAL SOCCER.

        All players that want to make it to that level should “eat a sh*t soccer” …lol.

        “Attend games from Spain to Argentina.”….. lol.

        “Recruit players from college and pay them enough for them to stay and take an adventure they will never regret.” ……. ha…. btw, pay them with what revenue? the jersey sales from a (rightfully) nonexistent kit? from the ticket sales of games that aren’t played in a stadium not yet even built? i seriously cannot stop laughing at IT’s comment.

      • Don’t forget that high-profile teams are scratching and biting in line to scrimmage this nameless group of recruits. And of course Atlanta has the funds to fly them around the globe to play these teams. Cough, cough… but let’s not mention that the NASL Silverbacks actually folded for a few years back during the recession.

    • somewhat kinda agree with you. if i was running an ideal expansion team I would get the FO, sales team, coaching staff, fan relations, etc in place a year or two early and have them manage a USL reserve team that continues past the MLS opening. then a year or two later launch the MLS first team with the real stadium and DP’s and all.

      • “Have them manage a USL reserver team…”

        So I guess the owner and staff of that team will happily step aside and forfeit their jobs so MLS can practice running a club with their training wheels on.

    • You’re idea is great, but with some flaws. The only way possible to do anything remotely what your saying is that the team would be better off with a USL team at best. Uniforms and crests can be entirely different from the main team.

      • ok i agree in a sense, i was perhaps harsh above, IT was right in the concept of his theory, but the extent to which he took it was highly comical. you can’t have a team for 2 years that doesn’t play actual league games. sure the FO will start to fall in line over this year, and by january next year there should be some signings or talks with certain players etc. But to have a team 2 years out makes zero sense. you can’t pay player salaries with no revenue or “pipe dreams”.

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