Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank didn’t seem too concerned on Monday, two days after the team’s worst performance in a short history filled mostly with positives.
The owner of the MLS team and the NFL’s Falcons said he was as surprised as anyone by the 4-0 defeat, but expressed confidence that the team will be competitive and if everyone involved with the franchise does things the right way it’s possible to bring the MLS Cup to Atlanta.
“That’s certainly our goal, but you can’t think about that before every match,” he said. “That’s a bad mistake.”
Blank spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday, touching on everything from the season-opening loss to Houston, to his role in the signing of Ezequiel Barco for a league-record fee, to what MLS needs to do continue its growth.
Were you as surprised as everyone by Saturday’s result?
Blank: “I was. I sure was. I was shocked like everybody else was. That first half was, I don’t know how to describe it as not being pretty, or being ugly or whatever.
In a serious vein, I spoke to Darren [Eales] yesterday. I’ll tell you what I told him. I usually speak to him after every match if I’m not there with him. It’s the first game of season. It’s the first match of the season. You’ve got a lot of new players. Whether it be the NFL or Atlanta United, there’s chemistry to be built. There’s understanding how players play in different position. There’s a lot of trial and experimentation. You do a lot of that in the preseason. But when you have key injuries like you did to [Ezequiel] Barco it kind of changes things a little bit in the last minute. I reminded him and I reminded myself and I’ll remind you and our readers that it’s a very long season in soccer. It’s twice as long as it is in the NFL.
I love the coaching staff. I love the squad. I love the players that we’ve put together. It was not a pretty first half and I know it will be better going forward. Obviously, it was not what we were intending to show and not what people were intending to see. At least in the second half they played better. As Tata [manager Gerardo Martino] said and as you said in your article, I read it this morning and I think you were fair, we had a fair number of shots, not on goal. But we had a fair number of shots. I think we will be fine. It’s not the worst thing in the world when you are constantly being touted now in your second year as one of the top teams in the league. We have a great squad and are going to be very, very competitive.
But if you are going to get a kick in the fanny at some point it’s not bad for it to happen early in the season. It reminds us all that these are very competitive teams that we are playing against. If you don’t play your best you will end up with those kind of results.
What do you expect in Year 2?
Blank: “I do expect them to be better than last year. I expect them to play well again, like they did last year. We had an incredible year, as you know and documented all of it.
We had a very, very competitive team on the field. The fact that we were only the fourth team in history of league to make it to the playoffs in the first year is an incredible statement to the quality of the players and coaching staff, etc. We improved our team this year. I think most feel people like we did. I think we had a good team last year. I think we have a better team this year. I believe we do. Now that they have to play to that ability. This is professional sports. It doesn’t happen by itself. It doesn’t happen because you say it happens. There are guys, whether it’s an NFL game or a soccer match, on other side of the ball that are very professional, that are paid well, that are highly motivated. You have to play at our best. We have to play at our best. We have the ability to certainly be very competitive throughout the year.”
Does that mean MLS Cup?
Blank: “Doug, I’ll give you some coach-speak that I actually believe in my heart. I really do. After being an NFL owner for 16 years and now an MLS owner going into my second year, the worst thing you can do is look past the next match, the next game. You take these matches a game at a time, you do the right things, you play the right way. If you do all those things, stay in the moment, stay with the play, stay with half, stay with the match and get onto the next match, at end of day you’ll have a really good result. Hopefully, it will lead to a championship for Atlanta. But you can’t focus on that. If you focus on that you are taking your eye way off the ball. That’s certainly our goal, but you can’t think about that before every match. That’s a bad mistake.”
Were you satisfied with last season’s result?
Blank: “Was I satisfied with last season’s result? The answer is … I think we did incredibly well on the pitch. Much better than most people expected. I wouldn’t say better than we expected but better than most people expected based upon history of Major League Soccer. In terms of fans and interaction with community I think we surpassed every record MLS had and hope to surpass those again this year.”
Mar 3, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Dynamo defender Philippe Senderos (4) and Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron (10) battle for the ball during the second half at BBVA Compass Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
When Barco was bought, what role did you play in that acquisition?
Blank: “I met with Darren Eales and Steve Cannon was with him and Darren explained to me the player and who potentially he is now and who he could be in the future, how he would fit into the way our team plays. I’m not an expert in the sport, Darren certainly is, Carlos [Bocanegra] certainly is, Paul [McDonough] certainly is, our coaches are so I was excited and I am excited. The league is excited, I might add. I spoke to Don Garber on Friday about another matter. He understands how important it is and he’s the commissioner of the league. Don said I’m sorry the player you signed isn’t going to play this weekend. We were looking forward to seeing him. He’s a great player. He’s going to be significant to the league, significant to the team. I’m enthused he’s here and I’m anxious to see him play. So will our fans.”
What did you learn about soccer in your first year as an owner?
Blank: (Laughs) “From a technical standpoint I think learned much more about the flow of the game as opposed to the technical game. It’s much easier for me to see things developing, good and bad, when I watch soccer matches now, particularly if I’m there and can see the whole pitch. The only thing I learned, or should say was reinforced at a high level, was the incredible level of enthusiasm and support we got from our supporter groups and our fans.
“As much as I can think about things in the future, or on the high side and potential, and see around a lot of corners, that was one that just blew me away. The enthusiasm and commitment of our fanbase, coming to every match the way they did and in droves, regardless of the weather when we played at Bobby Dodd, the noise, the excitement, the passion, the energy, the fervor, and to see them standing for an hour-and-a-half without exception and without exception to age, it was really remarkable. It was a great tribute to Atlanta and its fans.”
Is there any discussion of building a soccer-specific stadium for Atlanta United 2?
Blank: “No. We’re happy where we are now. We will see how that plays out.”
Any updates with the MLS All-Star game that you can share?
Blank: “No. But we are going to do our part in all the planning and make sure that we are going to host it in the best possible way that’s ever been done in the history of Major League Soccer. I’ll be in the middle of it. Our whole staff will be in the middle of it. Obviously, it’s league run, like the Super Bowl is, but we are going to give them levels of support and activity that they’ve probably never seen before.
“I know that Atlanta will put its best foot forward. It’s a great venue. It’s one of the reasons that we ended up with the stadium where it is because the opportunities for fans who visit for whatever event, in this case it’s soccer-related, that they can visit all the great venues that exist downtown and people can stay in the hotels within walking distance of everything without having to worry about car transportation or even worry about public transportation. In the NFL, we have the highest amount of public transportation of any team in the league and in Major League Soccer, as well.”
As co-founder of one of the nation’s most successful businesses, I was curious what do you think are next necessary steps for MLS to continue its upward trajectory and growth?
Blank: “Well, that’s a great question. First of all, I’m a big fan of Don Garber, not just personally, but professionally because I think he understand that this is a global game. I’m appreciating that probably much more than before I bought the team, what that means on a positive side and what that means in terms of the things we have to overcome.
“The league has done, along with consultants who have done extensive work that’s probably gone for a year-and-a-half now in terms of studying the dynamics of not only Major League Soccer but soccer throughout the world. When we first started looking at MLS, it was ranked No. 22 or 21 in leagues throughout the world. Now it’s ranked, depending upon who you talk to, seventh in the world. They are doing a lot of things right. But they continue to have to do things better.
“Some of the major markets have not performed the way the league would like them to. They are being very selective about the expansion markets now. Not only in terms of just the market but in terms of the capability of the owners and whether or not they are willing to make the investments; not only the financial investments but the investments of energy, passion, thought, etc. to get the things done they have to get done.”
Any preferences for the next cities to be included in expansion?
Blank: “No, I don’t. I really believe that the league is blessed because the sport, as you well know, is booming across the country. It’s a high-growth sport. It’s appealing to our demographics. It’s appealing to the changing demographics that we see taking place across the United States.
“I think if you pick the right markets and the right kind of stadium location and configuration and you have an owner that has the vision and financial capability and looking at things in the long run and not the short run, I don’t see any immediate limits in terms of soccer markets. There are limits in markets, I’m sure, just like there are in the NFL, but I think they have a ways to go. But they are blessed in that they can be very selective at this point in picking where they want to go.”
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