Building from scratch: Inside the construction of Atlanta United FC
ATLANTA – If there are any questions about what type of player Atlanta United will be when the expansion side enters Major League Soccer in 2017, they vanish upon sight of the team’s current headquarters.
The tan-colored brick mansion sits atop a hill a few minutes outside of downtown Atlanta. A security button beckons for visitors as they pull their car around the circular driveway. Those granted access follow the curling drive through a large black gate and down into an underground parking garage.
The mansion is home to the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and the personal offices of Atlanta United’s owner, Arthur Blank, the Home Depot co-founder and owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. For now, it also houses United’s front office operations.
“You pull up and you say, ‘No, this can’t be it,’” said Atlanta United director of soccer operations Paul McDonough, who joined the club last year after departing Orlando City.
Forbes estimates Blank’s worth at $2.8 billion, ranking him among the richest owners in MLS. The resources provided by Atlanta United’s owner stretch beyond even the financial side of the equation.
While the rest of the league is warming up a few weeks into the 2016 season, Atlanta United is similarly gearing up for 2017. Sitting at a long conference table inside of the headquarters last month, United technical director Carlos Bocanegra, the former U.S. men’s national team captain, motioned around the room and the offices outside the door when he spoke to how the team is advancing in its preparations.
United, which is still 11 months from its opening game, has access to the Falcons’ training facility. The infrastructure of the Blank Family Foundation and the Falcons has also given the club a head start within the front office. United is investing up to $60 million in a training facility in Marietta, Ga., about 15 miles outside of Atlanta, and will play in a $1.4 billion downtown stadium shared with the Falcons.
“I think it's a huge statement and it just shows the magnitude of this club,” Bocanegra said. “You see this place here where we come to work every day, it's pretty incredible. You have the backing of the Falcons and all the resources we have and the training ground on top of that, a new stadium. It's a big club. I think people are getting more and more excited in Atlanta and across the country seeing that and I think people are taking notice around the world.”
When MLS kicked off last month, the clock officially started ticking down on building a team that could turn those resources into a successful on-field product. The work to accomplish that feat is being done on several levels: in the front office, on the field and in the academy.
Building the team
There are aspects of Bocanegra “the player” that are still very much visible.
For one, he looks like he could still step onto a field and contribute for an MLS team today. It’s more Bocanegra’s presence, however, that project the qualities of the player who wore the captain’s armband for the U.S. national team at the World Cup in 2010.
He is a leader, and his conviction in his ideas for the club – from the structure of the first team to the way the academy should run – bode well for a position that rewards a strong sense of identity.
Bocanegra, though, said he is still growing into his new role away from the field.
“You’re not on-call, so to speak, as a player,” Bocanegra said, when asked about the biggest difference between his new job and his old one. “Get in, get out and you’re done. You go home and sleep or you’re worried about eating, sleeping and training and that’s really your only responsibility. And here it’s longer days. That took a little bit of time to adjust to. But I think I was very fortunate to come into this role when we weren’t player, so I had time to acclimate to this role.”
Bocanegra has been aided by the infrastructure already in place from the Atlanta Falcons. He sat in on a scouting school run by the NFL team, and has met with Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and others in the team’s football operations to get a feel for the way the franchise runs its front office.
Bocanegra is fortunate, too, to be part of a formidable front-office team that has been put together in Atlanta.
McDonough joined the club after a tumultuous ending in Orlando, a divorce that was seen as shortsighted by league observers. McDonough did a commendable job building the expansion team in Orlando last year, helping identify and sign some key pieces – Cristian Higuita, Rafael Ramos, Brek Shea and 2015 MLS Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin, among others – that currently has Orlando City sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s a huge advantage for us to have Paul,” Bocanegra said.
United also added two people with strong resumes in its scouting department: Jorge Alvial, formerly of Sporting Kansas City and Chelsea, and Lucy Rushton, a performance analyst formerly of Reading FC in England.
We want to use our DP spots to have the most effective players we can. I’m not as focused on getting someone because it’s good for marketing, a name player, but I am focused on getting a player who is effective for us in terms of helping us win on the pitch."
The job at hand is a formidable one. Expansion teams started from scratch in the modern MLS era, as opposed to moving up from one of the lower divisions, have averaged 13 fewer points in their inaugural season.
There is no formula for how to create an MLS playoff team from thin air because it’s never been done before.
The club has created a database of players it is monitoring both internationally and domestically. United has also already signed two players, midfielder Junior Burgos and goalkeeper Alexander Tambakis. The goal is to have four to six players signed going into the offseason.
As for what United will look like, Bocanegra and Atlanta United FC president Darren Eales said there has not yet been a decision as to whether the expansion team will follow the big-spending methods of NYCFC, L.A. or Toronto – which feature multiple big-ticket designated players – or whether it will be a relatively scaled-back model, like Orlando City and Seattle, with one higher-priced designated player and other DPs around a $1 million price tag.
“We want to have a competitive team,” Eales said. “ … We want to use our DP spots to have the most effective players we can. I’m not as focused on getting someone because it’s good for marketing, a name player, but I am focused on getting a player who is effective for us in terms of helping us win on the pitch. That is the lens we are looking through. We are trying to get the best talent at each spot.”
Making a good first impression is critical, and nothing will be more visible than the inaugural roster. Before an onrush of player signings, however, Atlanta must first find a coach.
Bocanegra said Blank has given him the green light to make the hire, now it’s just a matter of finding the right person for the job. The club will consider candidates both domestically and abroad.
“It's important that people understand the rules and regulations of MLS,” Bocanegra said. “I think if we were to go the foreign route we'd put a coach on the staff that has MLS experience and knows the rules and then if we go domestic that's a little bit different. We are [casting] more of a wide net. We're open at the moment, we're looking, and that's the nice thing about being a ways out, we don't have to rush our decision. We can take our time and do our due diligence and hopefully get it right the first time.”
Atlanta has had “informal conversations” with some candidates, Bocanegra said, and the ideal scenario would see a hire completed by the summer. The club would be willing to wait until the end of the 2016 season, he said, but logistically it would likely need a coach in place by November ahead of the expansion draft in early December.