Atlanta United’s English president Darren Eales believes Major League Soccer has entered football’s “global village” and should not be “bashful about being American”.
The former Spurs executive joined Atlanta in September 2014, two and a half years before their first competitive game, and on Thursday night was named MLS executive of the year after a stunning debut season.
Having first come to the United States to study on a football scholarship in 1991, the Essex-born Eales has witnessed American soccer’s growth first-hand.
MLS, founded in 1993 to capitalise on America’s hosting of the 1994 World Cup, has been integral to that progress and has done it by combining traditional elements of the global game within a North American structure.
The clubs look and sound like British teams, they play in “soccer specific” stadiums and their supporters have embraced football’s fan culture. But they operate within a salary cap, the season is based on the play-offs and there is no promotion or relegation.
Speaking to Press Association Sport, Eales, whose first job in football was as West Brom’s in-house lawyer, said he believes there is a “growing swagger” about the MLS because it has proven America “has embraced football”.
He said: “We’re all very excited about a recent study of 18- to 34-year-olds that showed soccer was tied for basketball as their favourite sport, behind the NFL but ahead of baseball and ice hockey.
“I think that is because of the atmosphere at the games and the sense of ownership the fans have – they don’t get that with the other sports. There is incredible energy and passion in the stadiums.
“The MLS is authentic but it’s also American and does not need to be bashful about that. The gimmicks – the shootouts and so on – have gone because they alienated the core audience but things like play-offs just work really well here.”
“Not going to Russia 2018 is a missed opportunity. It clearly would have been better for the whole game here if the US had qualified,” said 45-year-old Eales.
“But the level of debate we are having is healthy and it shows how far soccer has come. I’m also really pleased to hear people talking about access to good coaching.
“My concern, however, is we throw the baby out with the bathwater and change things just as they are starting to work. There is a lot of good work and great talent in the academies.”
There is no better example of that than Eales’ own club. With former Argentina and Barcelona manager Tata Martino pulling the strings, Atlanta’s free-scoring side made the play-offs at their first attempt, smashing MLS attendance records along the way.
Last season’s average gate of 49,257 is better than any other North American sports team outside of the NFL and is beaten by only five Premier League teams.
Atlanta share the Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the NFL’s Falcons and the £1.1billion venue was designed to house football and gridiron teams, just as Eales’ old team Spurs hope to do at the new White Hart Lane.
Success at the turnstiles was matched in the club shop, where Atlanta sold more kits than any other MLS team, and in the digital space, where their social media channels also lead the league.
For Eales, all of this is underpinned by a fundamental decision the club made: invest in youth. So instead of bringing over famous but ageing Europeans, Atlanta opened their academy first, scoured South America for young talent, built a £40million training facility and are about to launch an under-23 feeder team in America’s second-tier league.
“We wanted to show young players there were pathways to the MLS and beyond – we would love it if Real Madrid came knocking for our best players one day,” said Eales, whose second competitive season in the league begins in March.
“I think we have taken MLS into football’s global village and the best is yet to come.”