Just 15 days after winning the Major League Soccer Cup, the champs have a new head coach.
On Sunday, Atlanta United FC announced the hiring of Frank de Boer as their next manager, just the second in the history of the club. The 48-year-old Dutch tactician succeeds Gerardo “Tata” Martino as the boss of Atlanta, after Martino declined an option to extend his contract in October and stepped down from his post after the MLS Cup.
“When we began our search, we were determined to find someone who fit all of our criteria,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales said in a statement. “In addition to meeting our club’s core values, Frank’s philosophical views for how to play unequivocally aligns with ours.”
In a conference call with reporters on Sunday, Eales and Atlanta’s technical director Carlos Bocanegra expounded on why they thought de Boer was the right fit. Eales said that the club considered about 50 different people for the open position and eventually whittled that list down to 20, before deciding to interview seven of them. Ultimately, de Boer stood out from the pack.
“This is about evolution, not revolution. We’ve got a great team, a great squad and we’ve been successful. So, having someone that has that philosophical view and approach to playing the game was really important,” Eales said. “For us, we felt he was a real match from a cultural perspective.”
After a decorated career as a player — where he played in a pair of World Cups with the Netherlands — de Boer began his coaching career with Ajax as a youth coach in 2007. He played with the Amsterdam-based club from 1988 to 1999. In the 2010 World Cup, de Boer was also an assistant coach under Bert van Marwijk with the Netherlands. The squad lost in the final that wasn’t decided until the 116th minute, when Andres Iniesta netted a goal for Spain.
After the tournament, de Boer became the manager of Ajax’s first team. He would stay on as manager through 2016, and in that time he led the club of his youth to four league titles in Eredivisie — the premier Dutch league — and developed a reputation for getting the most out of young players at Ajax and then selling them for sizable transfer fees to bigger European clubs. In his time as manager of Ajax, he oversaw the transfers of Luis Suarez to Liverpool, Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen to Tottenham, Daley Blind to Manchester United and Maarten Stekelenburg to AS Roma, among others.
Eales was at Tottenham working as director of football administration when the transfers for Eriksen and Vertonghen were completed. Current MLS players who took the field for de Boer at Ajax include San Jose’s Danny Hoesen and Toronto’s Gregory van der Wiel.
De Boer’s Ajax teams pressed, took care of the ball, played smart defensively and were dynamic when attacking.
“We see Ajax as a club that, very much, we’d like to model ourselves after,” Bocanegra said. “We feel like we relate very to that club and what they’ve been able to do over the years.”
In addition to de Boer being multilingual, Eales also said that his experience as a youth coach played an important factor into his hiring. When de Boer oversaw Ajax’s academy, it saw 25 players move into the club’s first team.
“He’s been through the youth coaching ranks, so he has that perspective of the importance of developing that talent pipeline through the academy,” Eales said.
After a successful run at Ajax — where he had a 60.3 winning percentage — de Boer was hired to lead Serie A side Inter Milan in August 2016, but he lasted just a few months on the job and was fired after starting with a 5-7-2 record. In June 2017, de Boer resurfaced to manage Crystal Palace FC in the English Premier League, but he was again quickly canned after just five matches, as the club failed to score a goal in league play.
“If I look at a team like Crystal Palace, I think it was a slightly different player pool in terms of style of play that probably made it a little bit trickier,” Eales said.
In de Boer’s interview with Atlanta United, Bocanegra said he was impressed with the Dutchman’s demeanor, expertise and how he showed Atlanta’s brass how he likes to set his teams up, with or without the ball.
“It felt like he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder and it felt like he had something to prove. And I liked that,” Bocanegra said. “He’s had some success and he’s had some difficulties, but he was really up for this challenge. I thought that was great.”
While his managerial career has been a mixed bag of results, de Boer was a highly successful player, featuring mostly at centerback. He won five league titles while playing with Ajax and helped the club capture a UEFA Champions League title in 1995. He captained the Netherlands to a fourth place finish in the 1998 World Cup, and helped FC Barcelona win a La Liga title in 1999. Aside from being a stellar defender, de Boer was known for his knowledge of the game, passing skills and being able to read the field out of the back. Left-footed, he was also dangerous on set pieces. When he retired, de Boer was the most-capped player in Netherlands’ history, playing in 112 matches.
In his playing days and in his experience as a manager, de Boer has operated mostly in 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 systems. As a coach, he has emphasized possession and demanded ball control.
“We’ve got a style of play and a philosophy and a vision for the club, and we believe Frank can come in and continue to build on that,” Bocanegra said. “(Our style) gels well with how he likes to play and how he sees the game, how he sets up his team to play that high energy, high intense, passing style of soccer that we like to play here in Atlanta.”
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) December 23, 2018
Martino left MLS Cup-sized shoes for de Boer to fill in Atlanta. The club scored 70 goals in each of its first two seasons, won the cup, qualified for Concacaf Champions League and meshed together a talented group of players into a winning product that attracted the league’s highest attendance. For his work, Martino was named MLS Coach of the Year in 2018.
“(Atlanta United’s) sportive ambitions, as set out in a long-term strategy to be the best in class, clearly fits my personal ambitions,” de Boer said in a statement from the club. “I would like to build on the current success to develop a secure, solid foundation for the club at the top of MLS and beyond. Aside from the club’s ambitions, the values, culture and the philosophy for the entire organization are a vital part in realizing that point of success. This is exactly what I believe in as a person and as a coach. All of this combined, makes that I am really excited to be a part of it.”
While starting left back Greg Garza was traded and star midfielder Miguel Almiron might be sold to a European club, the cupboard is far from bare in Atlanta. The roster de Boer has to work with will feature all-stars in Brad Guzan, Darlington Nagbe, Michael Parkhurst and Ezequiel Barco, young homegrowns in Andrew Carleton and George Bello, high-caliber contributors in Franco Escobar, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Hector Villalba, Eric Remedi and Julian Gressel, and of course, league MVP and Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez.
“We’re in a great position to be able to recruit all over the globe,” Eales said.
De Boer’s first day on the job will be Jan. 1 and the team will open training camp on Jan. 14. Eales and Bocanegra said that de Boer’s assistant coaches will be brought in over the next few days.
Fans will get a look at what de Boer can do with the club on Feb. 21, when the Five Stripes take the field in Costa Rica Against CS Herediano in the Concacaf Champions League.