ATLANTA — Atlanta United president Darren Eales acknowledges competing on multiple fronts has made life difficult for manager Frank de Boer and his players in 2019. In addition to Major League Soccer regular-season play, Atlanta has undertaken the Concacaf Champions League and U.S. Open Cup. Next up is the Campeones Cup against Club América, Wednesday, Aug. 14, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Eales says the heavy workload is the price the club pays for its ambition.
“There’s no doubt it’s tough,” Eales told Pro Soccer USA. “But I suppose the reality is we can’t ask for any sympathy, because it’s the sort of game that we want to be involved in. … We want to be in those tournaments, and we want to play those games. That’s why we’re trying to increase the depth of the squad from one window to the next. That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Atlanta played an Open Cup semifinal Tuesday, winning at Orlando City to earn another trophy bout in its home stadium Aug. 27. The Five Stripes host New York City FC Sunday in a game that will make a significant impact on MLS Cup playoff seeding. Three days after the tilt against NYCFC, América comes to town.
This stretch is made even tougher by Josef Martínez’s adductor injury. Martínez did not play in the win at Orlando, and the prolific goal scorer is unlikely to be available versus the Pigeons or Las Águilas. Surviving numerous competitions with the intention to win each one has required a steady investment in quality throughout the roster.
“That’s part of the growing pains of our club,” Eales said. “We’re only in our third year, and it gets easier and easier as you get more time in the league because you’re able to produce that depth. You have more time for your academy to develop youngsters and create that pipeline to the first team.”
Tigres bested Toronto FC 3-1 at BMO Field in the inaugural Campeones Cup last September. Atlanta earned the right to host this season’s game by winning the 2018 MLS Cup. América qualified by defeating Tigres last month in Liga MX’s Campeón de Campeones match between the league’s Apertura and Clausura winners.
“It’s genuinely the best of Liga MX against the best of MLS, so it is real and meaningful in that sense” Eales said. “It’s like the good old days of the European Cup when it used to be you had to win your league to get in it. The only way you get in Campeones Cup is you’ve got to have won your championship.”
Eales says the perception that the Campeones Cup is a glorified friendly without much fan interest is debunked by television ratings. Last year’s game drew 1.2 million viewers across ESPN and Univision. ESPN and ESPN2 drew an average of 241,000 viewers for its regular-season broadcasts in 2018, while Univision, UniMás and Univision Deportes averaged 289,000. (It should be be noted Toronto-Tigres garnered far more interest on Spanish-language television: Univision drew 1.1 million viewers; ESPN2 brought in 101,000. This follows the precedent of Liga MX’s TV ratings consistently dominating those of MLS, and it shows why MLS executives are so keen on growing the league’s partnership with the Mexican top flight.)
Eales understands squad rotation is necessary during a congested schedule, but he wants to win this game. If de Boer sticks to his stated philosophy of moderate rotation at most, Atlanta should field a relatively strong lineup against América. Martínez may be unable to participate, but he believes the Campeones Cup is something “we have to win.”
“We have to win any game on any afternoon,” Martinez said after a recent training session. “Obviously we know it’s a nice game against the Mexican champions, and we have to try to win. We’re at home and we want as many trophies as possible because the day I retire, I want people to say ‘Martinez was a winner,’ not a loser. So we have to win.”
Eales hopes the rest of the team channels that mentality.
“For us, yes, it’s an extra game, it’s midweek, it’s a challenge,” the Englishman said. “But it’s a positive challenge because we’re champions of MLS, and we’re honored to be that representative as well as [having] a chance to win Campeones Cup. So we’re not going to cry about it or ask for people to feel sorry for us, because we want to be in those sort of games.
“It is another match, but we just have to learn to deal with that. That’s what you have to do if you’re a team that’s competing for trophies.”