It all began on a chilly evening on the west coast – when Atlanta United Director of Broadcast Matt Moore discovered the biggest dive bar in Portland.
It was 2015 – back before Atlanta United was Atlanta United. Team President Darren Eales and some of his staff were hopping around the country getting a look at other clubs in Major League Soccer. They were in the process of building a new club, and their mission was to scout best practices, tour facilities, gather ideas and get insights on what they could apply to the new club they were forming in Atlanta.
The trip took them to Portland, Oregon – and it was on this night that Eales tasked Moore with finding a place to eat dinner. Moore took the assignment one step further and found a dive bar that has karaoke, once he learned that Eales was a big fan. The two of them recruited three others to join: Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra, Senior Director of Communications Elena Cizmaric and Chief Financial Officer Rob Geoffroy.
The five of them arrived at Moore’s pick: The Boiler Room, a dive bar on the corner of Davis and Third Streets just a few blocks from Willamette River. It closed in 2016 but used to be a popular downtown spot for karaoke and comedy. When Eales and his group showed up, the place was nearly empty – maybe three or four people in the entire bar. Patrons were spread out, the industrial ironwork transformed into a pinwheel of purple lights flashing for a playful night crowd that hadn’t yet shown up.
That’s when Eales jumped into action. He hopped up onto the stage first, as a true leader should, the sparkle from the disco ball overhead bouncing bright diamond lights over his frame.
And he began to sing “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club.
The empty, quiet bar soon sprang to life. Whether from the upbeat repetition of the chorus or the cadence of Eales’ velvet voice over the words:
Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma chameleon.
The dark, funky space began to fill as more people entered the bar. Soon, there were 10 – then 20. Once the night started to roll, Eales didn’t allow for a pause. He kept the party going, signing up everyone in his group to sing a song.
By the time it was Bocanegra’s turn, the Boiler Room was packed. In the audience was a load of Navy seamen on shore leave. The group of sailors wearing crisp, white uniforms clustered together like fan boys in front of the stage. As Bocanegra took the microphone, he got heckled by a certain someone in the audience.
“Is that Carlos Bocanegra, the United States men’s national team captain?” Eales shouted.
With all eyes on him, Bocanegra captivated the audience with his rendition of the rangy ballad, “You've Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers. It didn’t take long for one of the sailors in the crowd to jump onstage and join Bocanegra in singing the cheesy lyrics.
You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips,
And there's no tenderness like before in your fingertips.
The night went on, but the loving feeling wasn’t lost for any of the group from Atlanta United. A new idea flickered between the five of them, one that would shape the club for years to come.
On that night, a company of stars was born. They called themselves, “The Portland Five.”
The Portland Five brought the loving feeling of karaoke back home to Atlanta. Not that the feeling was absent or ever left since it was just the beginning of something for the city. The club was founded in 2014 and joined MLS as an expansion team three years later for the 2017 season. Eales and his team were building a new club from the ground up. It was the time to set the tone, define the culture, and decide what the values would be.
The values they wanted to set included community, leadership, fan-focused… and karaoke.
And the tradition was no one-hit wonder. Whenever new people joined the club, every three months or so, the office would go out and do karaoke.
They’ve sung all over the state – and all over North America. Portland, Vancouver, Virginia Highlands, Sandy Springs, Duluth – inside the Perimeter, outside the Perimeter. In dive bars and karaoke bars. They’ve gone out and rented spaces – and stayed home, using a makeshift stage in the cafeteria at the Training Ground.
And the tradition includes everyone. From seasonal assistants to associates to executives to the head of the company himself. No one is exempt, not even Atlanta United’s owner, Arthur Blank.
For his choice, Mr. Blank sang a classic: “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond.
Tata Martino, the head coach of Atlanta United from 2016-2018, and his coaching staff sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” because it was the only English song they knew.
After winning the Cup in their first year, the first thing the academy team did was take the stage together and sing “Sweet Caroline.”
In Vancouver, play-by-play announcer and Academy dinner emcee had a particular pitchy performance of “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers.
Communications manager Chris Winkler caused quite a stir with an expletive-ridden choice of “Shots” by LMFAO and Atlanta United super fan Lil Jon.
Every Christmas party starts with Eales and former Academy Director Tony Annan singing a duet of “Last Christmas” by Wham!
(Although, Annan has since left the club, leaving Eales unsure what’s going to happen this Christmas. He’s currently auditioning hopefuls to be the Andrew Ridgeley to accompany his George Michael.)
And at the end of every karaoke event, once all the singers have performed, the Portland Five, the original Atlanta United singers, convene to vote on the best performance. For Eales and his staff, when they’ve got the microphone in hand and a song to sing, good times never seemed so good.
Jump ahead a few years to 2021. Fans are back attending games, reporters are back in the press conference room, asking questions to coaches and players face-to-face instead of on a Zoom call, media relations teams are back on the sideline, promotions managers are back supporting the fan sections, helping them raise tifos, jumping up and down in the stands after an Atlanta United win.
Players are traveling, teammates are hugging, friends are laughing.
And, most importantly, staff members are singing.
The club picked up the tradition of karaoke again a few months ago. The Atlanta United staff didn’t have a Christmas party in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions, but when protocols relaxed over the summer, they put on a “Christmas in July” celebration to make up for it. The cafeteria at the Training Ground transformed into a red and green soiree. The culture committee passed out head pieces, elf ears and Santa hats for people to wear. Staff wore Christmas sweaters matched with flip flops and shorts.
Newly hired staff know that karaoke is expected from them. Along with dress code and benefits, new hires are informed early on about the part of their job that requires karaoke. So, the staff members who joined the club over the past year came to the “Christmas in July” party prepared with a song.
A pair of microphones stood on one side of the cafeteria next to a D.J. who took the requests and played the music. Singers held phones up to refer to the lyrics. The rest of the party drank candy cane margaritas, ate gingerbread cookies, mingled and enjoyed the musical entertainment provided by their own co-workers.
Two video editors teamed up with two members of the social team to sing “Careless Whisper” by George Michael, the iconic saxophone calling the crowd to wave their hands along with the sensual, wistful melody.
An RDS coach put on an animated performance of “Summer Lovin’” from the musical Grease, flitting around from one side of the room to the other as if he was conducting a one-man show.
Arthur Smith, the new Falcons coach, came to the party and sang “Friends In Low Places” by Garth Brooks.
Atlanta United’s head coach at the time, Gabriel Heinze, did not make an appearance. He was relieved of his duties soon after.
Pat Johnson, Eales’s executive assistant, is one of only a few people allowed to record karaoke on her phone, so she serves as the go-to archivist for any and all performances over the years whenever the Portland Five reminisces.
The staff looks to get back to the microphone stand in the near future, and could do so as soon as the next international break. The office is especially eager because the next karaoke lineup includes the prospect of two highly anticipated performers. First, the debut of new head coach Gonzalo Pineda. Pineda joined the squad after the Christmas in July party, but expectations are high because of his musical ability (he plays guitar – and he’s already mentioned possibly picking “Wonderwall” by Oasis to sing).
The second eagerly awaited act is Vice President of Soccer Operations & Strategy Dimitrios Efstathiou. His Minnesota roots mean Eales has already tapped Efstathiou to open the night with a Prince number such as “Let’s Go Crazy” or “U Got The Look.”
After a difficult 2020 that involved cancellations, daily Covid testing, staff working from home, limited contact with friends and family, looking at screens for social interaction instead of faces, we’re starting to pick up our routines again. And as that happens, it feels like the joy of it all is slowly coming back – the chanting, the shouting, the drumming, the smiling, the cheering, the community-building and the singing.
Karaoke is back at Atlanta United.