Atlanta United president Darren Eales’ soccer career began during his upbringing in his hometown of Cambridge, England. He later reached widespread recognition as an executive with Premier League clubs West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur.
However, his soccer story is deep-rooted in the United States, and his decision to pilot Atlanta United was actually more of a homecoming than it was a journey into the unknown.
“I played soccer from when I could walk,” Eales said. “My dad was a non-league player in England. He would take me to his games when he played on the weekend. I would be on the touchline just kicking a ball and watching him.
“One of my earliest memories is when I was seven or six years old and my dad said to me that one of the substitutes hadn’t turned up and I was a sub. I genuinely thought at that time that I might get in the game and I was warming up really hard for the whole match. Of course, now I look back and think what an idiot I was!”
From a young age, and thanks to his Dad, Eales supported the small club of Chesterfield F.C., situated in the heart of England. He supported the small-town team during an era in which everyone was a Liverpool or Manchester United fan. Eales admits it wasn’t always easy for him, but Chesterfield taught him how to love the game.
“My dad calls it character building,” Eales said. “It actually was because it genuinely made me realize early on how important a soccer club is to the community and to its fans.”
Eales first came to America on a scholarship to play soccer collegiately where he played with West Virginia University and Brown University, where he was named Ivy League Player of the Year and First Team All-American. He then played professionally in the A-League, now disbanded, with the New York Centaurs, and also with the Hampton Roads Mariners of the USISL.
While stateside, Chesterfield made history when they reached the semifinals of the FA Cup. Eales received permission to fly home and watch his favorite club play in the monumental match.
“It’s like the Super Bowl of English football,” he said. “At the time [Chesterfield] were in the third division and no third-tier team had ever made the FA Cup final. There was no way I was going to miss that chance of actually seeing my team at Wembley Stadium in a semifinal. Watching that with all of my family, that sense of camaraderie and engagement is what makes soccer the beautiful game and the world game that it is.”
After suffering an injury which ended his playing career, Eales returned home to Cambridge University and studied law. Following six years as a barrister, the team environment of soccer was calling him back and Eales combined his passion for the game and his legal background into a position with West Brom as the club’s legal counsel. His role eventually also included the soccer operations side and remained with them for four and a half seasons before moving to Tottenham.
Eales spent another four years with Spurs before the opportunity arose for him to come back to America, this time with Major League Soccer. The last time he was in the U.S., soccer was young and gimmicky. Leagues were incorporating features from other American sports in efforts to attract fans and promote higher scoring, such as 30-minute stop clocks and team fouls.
This time around the sport had evolved, and Eales wanted in.
“What really impressed me was when I came back to America on a preseason tour with Tottenham during my first year and I saw the soccer culture that had grown,” Eales said. “Now MLS was keeping the game authentic, the same that it is around the world. You had fans wearing the shirts, chanting and singing, tifos. That genuine soccer culture just developed in America. So for me, a chance to come back and be a pioneer and be a part of that building of MLS, and hopefully take MLS and Atlanta United to be part of the league that is one of the top leagues in the world, was something that was really attractive.”
With a more traditional soccer culture established, Eales knew coming to America to build a team from scratch was an opportunity he would probably never have again. The decision to become president of Atlanta United specifically was driven by a number of reasons, beginning with the man who started it all: Arthur Blank.
“The big thing was when I actually came out to Atlanta and met with Arthur Blank,” Eales said. “To have met him and to realize how committed he is to the city of Atlanta, how committed he is to Atlanta United and soccer succeeding, how committed he is to the community and everything he tries to do with all of his businesses and the team he put around him, it just blew me away when I met them. It sealed the deal.”
Much like the players he would eventually lure to Atlanta, the city presented a number of assets that caught Eales’ eye. First and foremost was its fan base. Prior to hiring Eales, the club boasted more than 10,000 season ticket deposits.
The city was clamoring for soccer.
“When I took the role everyone was incredibly positive, supportive, jealous of the opportunities that I had, but the only negative I heard was this idea that Atlanta wasn’t a sports city,” Eales said. “I would hear that the city had lost the Thrashers, and that soccer wasn’t going to work here because the fans were fickle. It was pretty clear early on that was a load of rubbish.”
Over his three years with the club, Eales has been through every milestone. From the brand launch, kit reveals, player signings and ground breakings, the buildup to the first match day will elicit a range of emotions. However, for Eales, getting the ball rolling isn’t a result of the final product, it’s just the next step.
“Ultimately what soccer is all about is playing on the pitch; the highs and lows, the ups and downs that we’re going to have, the emotion, the blood sweat and tears on the pitch itself,” he said. “It’s been an exciting time, it’s been a real privilege to build it, but now we go to the next level. This is where the fun really starts because we’re actually playing the game. That’s what our supporters want to see. It’s what we can talk about in the pubs and bars afterwards and the week building up to the game. That’s what soccer is about.”