Garth Lagerwey has been the name at the top of mind to fill Atlanta United’s vacant presidency, but what about the man that has helped turn around US Soccer since taking over as CEO in 2020?
With Darren Eales joining Miguel Almiron at Newcastle and Josef Martinez again discussing the end of the time with the club, Atlanta United must consider its future and how it can find a new leader who will shepherd the club to new heights. Eales was the leader the club needed at its inception, valuing a close relationship with the fans, a deep connection and engagement in both the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia, a commitment to developing both local talent and high-priced foreign rising stars, and most importantly the intangible value of fun. While those values should continue in the organization, Atlanta United needs to avoid the temptation to hire a clone of Eales. Like all organizations, Atlanta United needs to transition from its charismatic founder to a pragmatic and disciplined steward. This leader should emphasize bringing stability to where dysfunction exists, bringing maturity to the organization, and new ideas for growth.
One example that feels similar to Atlanta United’s present dysfunction is that of US Soccer’s recent history. The US National Team was an ascendant program on both the men’s and women’s sides of the game. New pools of young players were heading to Europe and the national programs were seeing historic results on the global and regional stages. But poor choices of personnel, poor chemistry and squad selection, and an overall stale culture fueled by nepotism and closed-minded cronyism led to the embarrassing failure of the men’s program to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The national team program had recently gone through a series of charismatic yet chaotic managers whose tinkering and player management fueled toxicity in the locker room. Any successes were just convenient facades to hide the real problems.
“We put Band-Aids on things all the time and hope that they change and that things turn around,” USMNT defender Brad Evans said. “All of these successes were just Band-Aids for a failure that was going to potentially happen, and it did.”
Much of that falls at the feet of then-federation president Sunil Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn. That saga is well-chronicled at this point, especially in the Ringer’s article titled “Own Goal” which delves into the interpersonal and political intrigue of the Klinsmann era and the ineptitude of US Soccer management to stem the chaos inflicted by a manager attempting to seize complete control over the organization and make points by alienating star players and core veterans. One would have hoped that Carlos Bocanegra would have learned from his experience at the heart of this calamitous era of his international career. In March of 2013, Bocanegra was unceremoniously stripped of his national team captaincy and informed that his time with the program was over. Almost 2 years later, Bocanegra was announced as Atlanta United’s first Technical Director. But the issues went beyond Klinsmann. They were institutional in nature and required a holistic institutional change to get the program back on track and back to the World Cup.
Those changes seem to have come in part thanks to Will Wilson. Wilson was hired in March of 2020 to replace Dan Flynn. Wilson is a thirty-year veteran of the sports business world including stints at the Wasserman sports agency, MLS’s Soccer United Marketing, the NFL’s business in Latin America, and alongside Don Garber at NFL Europe in the 1990s. He is an expert in contracts and collective bargaining agreements, international partnerships, and building the international profile of a team. In his new position, Wilson restructured and shuffled the personnel in US Soccer firing some longtime figures within the organization. He also made the decision to end the US Soccer Development Academy which spurred youth development innovation through the formation of MLS NEXT and the USL Academy League. All of this came at the beginning of the pandemic when the federation’s status was uncertain and the mood on and off of the field was turbulent. Wilson then went on to oversee the resolution of the equal pay lawsuit brought against the federation by the Women’s team levied against his predecessors. The negotiations that followed led to a historic Collective Bargaining Agreement that ensures equal pay between the Men’s and Women’s programs and equal prize money. Wilson also negotiated the federation’s media rights deal with Warner Media starting in 2023, a new sponsorship deal with Nike, and the selection process for US host cities in the 2026 World Cup. He seems to have liked Atlanta’s potential enough to name the city as one of the tournament’s hosts.
With Wilson stepping down on October 31st ahead of the World Cup “to pursue new professional opportunities and ventures,” Atlanta United fans may be excused for speculating whether Wilson could be the man the club needs to right the ship and guide Atlanta United back to its heights.
So, what should Wilson (or any new president) bring to Atlanta United?
Atlanta United needs stability more than anything right now. Multiple failed coaching hires, a historically injury-riddled season, key vacancies in a hollowed-out front office, some key player recruitment misses, and the major suspension of roster wizard Paul McDonough all created a sense of dysfunction and uncertainty surrounding the club. This dysfunction has driven a wedge between the club and members of its fan base who are starting to feel disillusioned with the club.
The incoming club president should prioritize two key areas of focus. The first should be investing in the club’s human infrastructure to ensure that the players and staff have the best support they can get. This includes scouts, medical and nutritional staff, analytics, and other support staff to simplify everyone’s jobs to what they are best at. Next, we now know that Gonzalo Pineda is set to return in 2023 and will likely retain most of his staff. His first full season with the club has been far from what many hoped it would be but there is a chance that a healthy team and a retooled roster could improve his results next season.
The club should double down on its development pipeline. The academy staff and Atlanta United 2 staff have performed extremely well and the academy is beginning to produce a steady stream of compelling talents like Caleb Wiley, Noah Cobb, and Ajani Fortune. The club should also examine how they will use the 2s in this new format, especially with the U-19s taking on more of a U-23 role in the 4th division’s UPSL Georgia.
The second core area the club president should focus on is rebuilding trust between the club and its fans and community. Something Darren Eales did well in the early days of Atlanta United was connecting with the community. He personally visited tailgating fans at the Gulch, joined watch parties at area pubs, and passed out Atlanta United merchandise at neighborhood festivals. The club also listened to the fans and the supporters’ groups to organically create team traditions and culture. When the club broke ground on its training facilities, Eales shared that the training ground would embody, “our commitment to aspiration, inclusion, and excellence.” Many fans felt that after the championship, a lot of the collaboration went away with the club and the supporters’ groups both stepping back from ordinary fans. Many saw this as arrogance and aloofness that could be charming when the team was performing on the field but far more patronizing when the team was struggling. The new front office should work to restore that humble and personal connection to fans and never forget the importance of fun.
A big part of maturity is making the hard decision to move on from the past when it doesn’t serve the future. An organization must do things because they are logical and right, not because they are exciting or hold deep nostalgic value. The height of Atlanta United’s short history has already gained mythical status as fans and club officials reminisce about bygone times. Rather than looking backward, Atlanta United needs to rekindle the spirit of innovation, ambition, and collaboration that fueled the club’s rapid growth and the media’s pronouncements of Atlanta United being the flagship of the next era of MLS. At the moment, that does not seem to be the case but the club can break free from its stagnation with the addition of new visionaries humble enough to work within the cultural framework of the club yet creative enough to find opportunities for innovation within it while expanding the idea of what Atlanta United can be.
At the club’s inception, Eales laid out a simple concept for the club. “It’s very easy with a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘OK, I want us to play attacking and play a certain way,’” Eales said. “But from the very first time I met Carlos [Bocanegra, technical director], we wanted to try and do things with that aim: to be entertaining and to be a team people want to watch play. And we did that by going for young Designated Players.” Tata Martino expanded on that with his vision for “Atlanta United [was] to be recognized by how it plays, to create an identity from the U-12 to the first team. And honestly, I don’t want to do this just on my behalf, but for the good of the organization and the sport here.” To some degree that is true. But the approach to maintaining that vision has been inconsistent. The new club president must understand Atlanta United’s founding vision and how Tata Martino and other key early innovators adapted it and grew it, and then be able to distill it into its purest form so that that vision can be easily understood and acted upon by everyone in the organization. That will be the club’s core philosophy.
A handful of players remain who remember the early version of the team but their time on the field is growing short. A big question for the incoming club president is what to do about Josef Martinez and Brad Guzan. Guzan will likely play his final matches with Atlanta United before retirement but the status of Josef Martinez is far more fraught with peril. The new club president must meet with Martinez and the other veteran leaders to assess their role with the club, what they feel is missing, and whether they are still good fits for the future of the team on the field or off of it with the club’s staff. Beyond just the players, members of the club who may have been instrumental in its founding and rise but who do not fit its future should not remain with the club. These decisions are painful so that’s why a mature and objective leader from outside of the organization is needed to push it forward.
By creating stability and maturing the philosophy and systems of the organization, the organization can become far more effective through simplicity. A simple comparison is between a young jazz player and an old jazz player. The young player is trying to get noticed, show off, and will play a ton of notes up and down the scales to be loud and flashy. The old jazz player, though, understands the power of silence. Instead of filling every gap with a note, the old jazz player adds profundity to the notes he or she actually plays and adds a simple beauty to the entire piece by playing the right notes at the right time instead of a flurry of notes the whole time.
Once simplicity of vision and operation is achieved, the organization is ready to innovate and find new areas for growth.
We are once again in a World Cup year and the United States men’s team is back at the tournament. This will naturally spike interest in the game among children and could boost recruitment for the growing youth development networks in the United States. Atlanta United has a particularly potent pool of players to draw from with opportunities to poach potential top athletes from America’s other major sports if they see the excitement and glory of playing for the hometown Atlanta United as more enticing than college football, basketball, or the Atlanta Braves.
The club must look for ways to continue growing the game and expanding the talent pool that they can draw from across the state of Georgia. A lot of this infrastructure is already laid for the incoming club president with the Regional Development School, play identification camps for youngsters under the age of 12, Soccer In The Streets, Station Soccer, and the 100 mini-pitches across Georgia effort all in full swing. The U-19s are already experimenting with the possibility of a U-21 or U-23 club as they compete in the 4th division, and Atlanta United 2 prepares to depart the USL-Championship to join the 3rd division MLS NEXT PRO league. With the potential player quality set to increase across the state of Georgia, the club must expand its pool of academy scouts and statewide roving instructors to intervene in players’ development as early as possible in their development. The club must also look at adding additional development teams like a USL Championship affiliate in Athens, Augusta, or Chattanooga to continue offering the same quality professional competition for breakthrough-candidate prospects and homegrown candidates currently in college. Atlanta United has more talent in the college ranks than it has room to bring back to the club. The club should also deepen partnerships with Savannah Clovers, South Georgia Tormenta, Chattanooga Redwolves, Greenville Triumph, and local 4th division teams to develop our prospects while also identifying players who could potentially be bought from their academy systems.
The club needs to be ready to take the game globally and have bolder ambitions for international partnerships than the underused and under-appreciated relationship with Aberdeen of the Scottish Premier League. Will Wilson built partnerships between MLS and some of the top teams in the world, and he could use that experience to build a pathway from Latin America to Europe through Atlanta with potential partner clubs in Argentina, Mexico, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
The club should also develop the other massive talent pool they have yet to explore, women’s soccer. Metro Atlanta is already home to several successful girls’ academies and could become even more prolific at producing top talent than even the boys’ academy. Rather than beginning with an expansion side in the National Women’s Soccer League (first division), Atlanta could take a slower and more intentional approach by launching a team in the USL’s Superleague. The club could form an academy and create a 2s team in the USL W League (3rd division), building a sustainable and productive development pipeline while creating new excitement for new and current fans. If the club decides to pursue a women’s program, every child in the state of Georgia could pursue their dream of playing for Atlanta United.
All of this comes with a ticking clock. One of Darren Eales’ final acts at Atlanta United was securing host city status for Atlanta in the 2026 World Cup, the largest World Cup in history and the first in the United States since 1994.
“The World Cup in [USA] 1994 is still the most ticketed World Cup in the history of World Cups,” Eales said. “And that was before MLS even existed, so think about it now. You’ve got a chance to host it with nearly 30 years that MLS has been around, so it’s just going to be a huge party.”
Not only will it be a big party for the community, but it will also be a galvanizing moment for the sport in America and a catalyst for poaching talented athletes at a young age who may have otherwise played America’s other major sports like football and baseball. The World Cup in North America will be followed up by America potentially hosting the Women’s World Cup in 2027 and Los Angeles hosting the Summer Olympics in 2028. These could be gargantuan opportunities for the city, the soccer culture, and the game, with new media deals and new ways to engage with fans sure to emerge.
In the end, that’s what this is all about. It is about building lifelong relationships with fans by giving them a sense of belonging and a sense of ownership over their team. It is about instilling pride, love, and community. This should be a culture of fun and inclusivity where the relationship between the club and the community does not begin and end at the turnstiles. The club needs new and creative storytellers to rebuild the culture, while also expanding its team of community and diversity specialists to expand the tent to welcome and engage fans from around the South and from around the world. And maybe, just maybe, the club can bring back its classic 5-Stripes kits as a nod to the past while ushering in its next chapter.