Atlanta United stand on the brink of Major League Soccer glory just 21 months after their first ever competitive match – little wonder president Darren Eales is pinching himself.
United host the Portland Timbers at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium this weekend, when more than 70,000 fans will roar on Tata Martino’s side in the MLS Cup final.
Atlanta have taken MLS by storm since joining as an expansion team in 2017 and are looking to end their second season in existence with a first trophy.
Former Tottenham executive director Eales has played an integral part in shaping United since arriving four years ago, becoming “employee number one” at a club without a fan let alone a player
Now, the Englishman watches arguably the most attractive football in MLS and sees United average more than 54,000 fans, putting them 14th in the world ahead of the likes of Manchester City and Paris St Germain.
“It’s just over four years since I came to Atlanta,” Eales told Press Association Sport on the eve of the MLS Cup final.
“I sat in the office at the Atlanta Falcons’ training ground and literally had a desk and nothing in there except a name plate that said you are president.
“I sat down there and started to draw up the plans on how we try and make Atlanta United one of the top teams in MLS – and to be here only two years into our playing existence actually hosting an MLS Cup final in front of over 70,000 is something really special.
“I am proud of what we’ve achieved.
“Win or lose, it’s going to have been a great year, but obviously I would just love to win it just for the fans of Atlanta because they’ve been so supportive right from the very start and it would be great if we could get them a win.”
Backed by billionaire Arthur Blank, who also owns the Atlanta Falcons, swashbuckling United have captured the imagination of an international, sport-hungry city that has not celebrated a trophy since the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995.
United are bookmakers’ favourites against the Timbers thanks to home advantage and a superb campaign, which saw them overcome Supporters’ Shield champions New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference showdown as their focus on young talent paid dividends.
Eales wanted to “try and prove that you can build the stars rather than bring in a star that has name recognition” at Atlanta – a tactic that has clearly worked, with free-scoring Josef Martinez this week named MLS’ Most Valuable Player.
Miguel Almiron finished runner-up in that award and is attracting interest from the Premier League, with Newcastle strongly linked.
“He’s a top talent and we’re a team that is trying to win trophies, with an owner who is a billionaire, who cares about winning,” Eales said.
“We’re in a situation where it has to be the right offer for the club, but we’re not going to accept any of the chump change figures I’ve seen in the press.
“If there’s a proper offer, if it’s the right offer for Atlanta United and the player and the league, then we’ll consider it.
“But we’re not under any sort of pressure to transfer the player so in that sense it has to be a realistic offer that measures the true value of Miguel Almiron, who is just a wonderful player.”
It has been widely-speculated that the MLS Cup final could prove Almiron’s last match for Atlanta, just as it might be for MLS Coach of the Year Martino with the Mexico national-team post seemingly in the pipeline.
Eales said the former Barcelona boss will “always be a legend of the club” – yet losing such a key figure does not scare the United president given how far they have come.
“The exciting thing for us is we have got a great base and platform to build the club,” he added.
“Whatever happens, win or lose, it’s just the start. We want to establish a dynasty and be one of the top teams in Major League Soccer.
“We get to play (CONCACAF) Champions League next and we’re just going to look to get better and better each year.”