De Boer takes over Atlanta United with big shoes to fill
MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) Frank de Boer was sacked by Inter Milan after less than three months on the job.
He lasted just four Premier League games at Crystal Palace.
Now, after two short-lived coaching stints, de Boer has a chance to revive his career with the wildly popular champions of Major League Soccer.
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The longtime stalwart of the Dutch national team has taken over at Atlanta United, which won the MLS Cup in just its second season while breaking numerous attendance records.
De Boer said it is a shot at redemption, while also stressing that his chances of success are much greater in Atlanta.
“Of course, you have to learn from your mistakes, but also about organizations that aren’t good and organized and structured like Atlanta United,” he said Monday during a news conference at the team’s suburban training facility.
With his two previous employers, de Boer added, “There was no cohesion between all the departments. Everything was separate. Now, we have a feeling, `OK, I don’t have to look around for the dead body in the closet or behind the closet.’ Everything is very clear and structured.”
He represented his country 112 times on the field, most notably delivering a towering 60-yard pass that set up Dennis Bergkamp’s winning goal against Argentina in the closing minutes of a 1998 World Cup quarterfinal. De Boer moved into coaching after his playing career ended, leading Dutch powerhouse Ajax to a record four straight Eredivisie titles.
Taking over at Inter Milan in 2016, de Boer failed to match the success he had in his native country. The Italian club struggled in both Serie A and Europa League competitions, which led to his firing on Nov. 1 with the club mired in 12th place.
His tenure lasted just 85 days.
The following summer, de Boer was hired by Crystal Palace. Despite modest expectations - the team was coming off a 15th-place showing the previous season, finishing just five points above the relegation zone - the coach was quickly fired again after Crystal became the first team in 93 years to lose its first four matches in the top flight without scoring a goal.
Atlanta United is in a much different position, having quickly become MLS’ flagship franchise on and off the field. The team has a clear power structure led by owner Arthur Blank, team president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra - a setup that was appealing to de Boer.
“For me, that is so much easier,” he said. “The 5 1/2 seasons that I was working for Ajax as a head coach ... it cost me less energy than the eight months at Inter and Crystal Palace. I was already starting to get gray hairs.”
De Boer certainly has some big shoes to fill.
In two years as United’s coach, Tata Martino instilled an attacking style of play that was a big hit with the fans and hugely successful on the field. The club averaged more than 53,000 per game this season, easily eclipsing its own record, and thrilled the city by capturing the MLS Cup championship in December.
Martino stepped down to take over as Mexico’s national coach.
The expectations remain the same.
“Everybody expects a lot from Atlanta United,” de Boer said. “That’s normal when you’re a champion.”
De Boer’s team is still a work in progress. MVP runner-up Miguel Almiron was expected to transfer to the Premier League during the January window, but no deal has been reached. He reported Monday for the start of Atlanta’s training camp.
River Plate star Pity Martinez announced last month that he had a deal to come to Atlanta, supposedly as Almiron’s replacement in the midfield, but that’s on hold for the moment. United already has three designated players who are exempt from the salary cap: Almiron, record-setting goal scorer and league MVP Josef Martinez, and 19-year-old Ezequiel Barco.
Less than six weeks removed from its MLS Cup triumph, Atlanta United reported for camp to begin preparing for its first appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League. The team opens with a home-and-home series against Costa Rican club Herediano late next month, just ahead of the MLS season opener.
Atlanta United is eager to become the first MLS club to win the continental championship since the league format began in 2008. Mexican teams have won 10 straight titles, including Chivas’ thrilling victory over Toronto FC last year that came down to penalty kicks.
“We need to have an MLS club win it,” Eales said. “It would be great if that could be Atlanta United.”
But pulling off a CONCACAF title, while also maintaining success in league play, presents a daunting challenge for the new coach. Toronto put its emphasis on winning the Champions League and wound up missing the MLS playoffs.
“We’re not naive. We saw what happened to Toronto,” Eales said. “It’s going to be tough. But we want to be competing on all fronts.”