New year, new coach, new Five Stripes.
Of course, Atlanta United FC is still proud of its accomplishments in 2018 under former head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino. In the club’s second year in Major League Soccer, it scored 70 goals during the regular season, finished second in the race for the Supporters’ Shield, qualified for the Concacaf Champions League, had the Golden Boot winner and league MVP and won the MLS Cup.
But Monday at the club’s training grounds in Marietta, Ga., was all about staring ahead at the 2019 season. The day marked the opening of Atlanta United’s third preseason training camp and the introduction of its new head coach, Frank de Boer.
“It’s a new year. It’s a new era, and we’re looking forward. We’ve got a great new head coach, the leader of the club to take us forward to this next challenge,” Atlanta’s technical director Carlos Bocanegra said. “We also have a target on our back from last year, so it’s going to be even more difficult.”
De Boer, 48, is the second Atlanta United coach in the club’s short history. He succeeds Martino, who declined an option to extend his contract with the club in October. Last week, Martino was introduced as the new head coach of El Tri, Mexico’s men’s national team.
News of the Five Stripes hiring the Dutchman de Boer came just before Christmas and was met with a mix of optimism and worry. De Boer comes to Atlanta with a resume that includes an impressive career as a player, where he featured in two World Cups, won five league titles and a UEFA Champions League crown at Ajax, and helped FC Barcelona win a La Liga championship.
At Ajax and in Barcelona, de Boer played under Louis Van Gaal. At Barcelona, he played alongside Pep Guardiola. De Boer also mentioned Guus Hiddink and Frank Rijkaard among those who have influenced him.
“I’m very excited to be here. It’s a fantastic club from what I’ve saw already,” de Boer said. “It’s a different year this year. Everyone expects a lot of Atlanta United. That’s normal when you’re champions.”
De Boer’s managerial career features a mixed bag of results. After his playing days, he returned to Ajax as a youth coach and was also an assistant coach with the Netherlands during its 2010 run to the World Cup final. After the tournament, de Boer became the head coach of Ajax’s first team and guided his boyhood club to four league titles. He had a 60.3 winning percentage there and also developed a reputation for being able to develop young players — like Luis Suarez and Christian Eriksen — and then sell them to bigger clubs for large transfer fees.
After a successful run at Ajax, de Boer was hired in 2016 to manager Inter Milan. But he lasted less than a year on the job and was fired after a starting with a 5-7-2 record. De Boer was then hired to coach Crystal Palace in 2017, but again found himself on a short leash and was ousted after just five matches, as the club failed to score a goal in league play.
De Boer said Monday that he thinks the situation at Atlanta United will be much different from what he experienced at Inter and Crystal.
“Of course, there’s a little bit of redemption. You have to learn from your mistakes,” de Boer said. “There was no cohesion between all of the departments. Everything was separate. Now, I don’t have to look around… Everything is very clear and structured (at Atlanta). For me, that’s so much easier. I can focus on the first team.”
De Boer said conversations with Atlanta began about a month and a half ago. He came to the city, met with owner Arthur Blank and saw the training grounds. He said he had other offers to coach elsewhere, but told his agents that Atlanta was the best fit.
“I have such a good feeling here. I think I can do what I’m good at. That’s why I chose Atlanta,” de Boer said. “That’s one thing I’m really looking forward to, to focus on the things I’m good at.”
Coming with de Boer to the Five Stripes as assistant coaches are Orlando Trustfull and Bob de Klerk, who also hail from the Netherlands.
Trustfull, 48, coached under de Boer at Ajax, Inter and Crystal. De Klerk, 58, worked under de Boer when he was coaching Ajax’s youth teams. He has also coached in South Africa and China, and was a Toronto FC assistant from 2011 to 2013. Both men were with de Boer last week at the MLS Combine.
An Atlanta United spokesman confirmed to Pro Soccer USA that Aron Hyde will remain as the goalkeeper coach under de Boer and that Rob Valentino has been promoted to the first team staff. He previously was an assistant with the club’s United Soccer League Championship affiliate, ATL UTD 2.
Bocanegra said that “one or two more” staff hires will be announced by the end of the week.
The first task for de Boer and his staff will be getting themselves acquainted with Atlanta United’s players. De Boer said he has followed MLS — especially so this past season when Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney joined the league — and was impressed with the quality of the Five Stripes.
“I still have to experience the players myself. The first one or two weeks are very good for that. Of course, everyone wants to play dominant football,” de Boer said. “I have to see what (creates) the most possibility to win games. We want to make it as attractive as possible for the fans, but the fans also want us to win, so it’s a combination of those two.”
One of the challenges de Boer will face this season is managing a roster that will play in several competitions. In addition to MLS play, the Five Stripes will compete in Concacaf Champions League, the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup.
“I think we have depth in the squad,” de Boer said. “We’re going to play a lot of games. It’s a big task for the technical staff but also the medical staff to prepare the players as well as possible, so they can play every three or four days.”
De Boer has less than six weeks to prepare the Five Stripes for their first game, against CS Herediano in Costa Rica on Feb. 21.