Arthur Blank is no stranger to successful business ventures, but this week he’s a bit on edge. Atlanta United FC, Blank’s two-year old expansion team, advanced to the MLS Cup Championships to play the Portland Timbers at 8 p.m. on Saturday December 8th at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s an exciting time for Blank, who is understandably a bit anxious after watching the Atlanta Falcons blow a 25- point lead in the 2016 Super Bowl.
“I don’t want to end up with the same feeling we had a couple years ago in 16,” he says.
Despite his past disappointments, Blank has high hopes for Atlanta United, the fourth expansion team in history to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs. The club currently sits at No. 2 in the MLS eastern conference after defeating the top seed New York Red Bulls in a 3-0 shutout. The win advanced them to leg 2 of the Eastern Conference and now they are staring down an MLS Championship Cup.
Since its inception, the club has smashed numerous records including highest attended soccer match in the world at 72,243 and that was during the 2018 World Cup. Josef Martinez, striker for Atlanta United, was awarded the Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award on December 5th for breaking MLS records with six career hat tricks and setting a new single season scoring record with 28 seasonal goals.
The success of Atlanta United has been astounding with the club now estimated to be worth $350 million. But when Blank first pitched the idea of an Atlanta based expansion team to the MLS, the league was “skeptical” says MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
“I want to start by saying it’s not that long ago we were looking at an expansion strategy in the Southeast. We met with Arthur who was so bullish about this city and the market,” Garber says. “We really wanted a soccer stadium here, and Arthur said ‘This stadium I’m going to build is going to be the best in the world it’s going to be world class and we’re going to fill it up’ and he did.”
As the owner of the Atlanta Falcons and co- founder of Home Depot, Blank’s intrepid nature is what fuels his drive to fund some of the most successful start-ups in Atlanta. Blank made a convincing argument for the club and “defied all expectations.” Atlanta United set the MLS record for season average game attendance at 53,002 and season ticket sales of more than 36,000. The business mogul says he made a commitment to treat the club like it was the only team he owned stating “We didn’t want to make it feel like the stepchild.”
Building Atlanta United
Blank put his money behind the world class Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground and led the charge on the construction of the $1.2 million Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a state of the art facility with a retractable roof. He then used a top to bottom strategy to find the best leadership for the organization. The first appointment was Darren Eales as club President. The former executive director of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club brought his expertise stateside along with a fresh vision for the team. When building the club and fan base he looked to the MLS Western Conference.
“The Portland Timbers are a great example, they are still the benchmark for fan culture we want to be like them with what they bring in terms of the fans and atmosphere…. they opened the doors for us,” Eales says. “Seattle is a benchmark franchise the numbers they did when they came into the league were mind blowing,”
Together, Blank and Eales appointed former U.S. Men’s National Team player Carlos Bocanegra as the Technical Director and club Vice-President. When Bocanegra began considering the position in April of 2015, there were already 12,000 season tickets sold for a match that wouldn’t be played until March of 2017. The impressive numbers combined with Blank’s resume, led him to join the organization as the technical director.
“I read about Arthur and what he’d done with his businesses and what he did with the Falcons,” Bocanegra says. “I saw there were executives who have been tenured a long time there, so it wasn’t a volatile knee jerk reaction, and that he was well-respected in the community.”
His first task was implementing a worldwide scouting network to recruit the best players. The technical director took his time rounding out the club’s 30 players with head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino. Atlanta United paid Club Atletico Lanus, an Argentine sports club, $8.5 million for midfielder Miguel Almirón, and a $15 million transfer fee for attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco. When Martinez obtained a green card, they used the Targeted Allocation Money for midfielder Eric Remedi who could occupy the eighth-international spot.
In the second season, the starting line-up with goalkeeper Brad Guzan, Martinez, Almirón, Franco Escobar, Julian Gressel, Leandro Gonzalez- Pirez, and Hector “Tito” Villalba remains the same. The only exception is midfielder Yamil Asad who was sold to D.C. United. Since then, the team has evolved into a power house acquiring midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who started his career with the Portland Timbers. Bocanegra says when choosing players, it’s all about gaining a strong competitive edge.
“When starting, we had to sign 30 players to professional contracts, so that was difficult trying to piece who plays well together and the partnerships on the field,” Bocanegra says. “Now, we have a good base and we’re very happy with the team, but you always want to create competition, so that’s the next step for us is trying to build competition in each position and build depth.”
Anticipating The Future
With Martino leaving to coach the Mexican National Team and Almirón rumored to have accepted an offer from New Castle United, Eales and Bocanegra are traveling the world looking for top talent. However, Eales says they have time in the managerial search. It’s not like the Premier League where they have 24 hours because someone leaves.
“If there’s an amazing offer that’s great for the club, great for a player and great for the league we’ll take it, but it has to be amazing, otherwise we’d be stupid to consider it,” Eales says. “As far as the managerial search we’ll wait until the MLS Cup is finished.”
Atlanta United proved themselves to be a force to be reckoned with in its first season by advancing to the eastern conference finals. The club fell to Columbus Crew in a 3-1 shootout, but they learned from their mistakes. Martino now makes a habit of not playing Martinez, who was out with injuries the majority of the first season, the entire 90 minutes. Instead, he replaces him with a sub once Atlanta United is leading the scoreboard. This season the plays are tighter, passes smoother and game tougher with more focus on doing “whatever it takes to win” says Team Captain Michael Parkhurst. And the numbers don’t lie, when comparing statistics Atlanta United is poised to beat the Portland Timbers who sit at No. 5 in the MLS Western Conference. When Atlanta United played the Timbers in June the match ended in a 1-1 draw. The odds look good to Blank who says he’s in cahoots with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms for a celebration.
“I was texting the mayor and she already planned on a parade, so she’s ahead of me,” Blank says. “We haven’t had a parade since 1995, so God willing.”