Atlanta United stand on the brink of Major League Soccer glory just 21 months after their first ever competitive match – little wonder president Darren Eales is pinching himself.
United host the Portland Timbers at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium this weekend, when more than 70,000 fans will roar on Tata Martino’s side in the MLS Cup final.
Atlanta have taken MLS by storm since joining as an expansion team in 2017 and are looking to end their second season in existence with a first trophy.
Former Tottenham executive director Eales has played an integral part in shaping United since arriving four years ago, becoming “employee number one” at a club without a fan let alone a player
Now, the Englishman watches arguably the most attractive football in MLS and sees United average more than 54,000 fans, putting them 14th in the world ahead of the likes of Manchester City and Paris St Germain.
“It’s just over four years since I came to Atlanta,” Eales told Press Association Sport on the eve of the MLS Cup final.
“I sat in the office at the Atlanta Falcons’ training ground and literally had a desk and nothing in there except a name plate that said you are president.
“I sat down there and started to draw up the plans on how we try and make Atlanta United one of the top teams in MLS – and to be here only two years into our playing existence actually hosting an MLS Cup final in front of over 70,000 is something really special.
“I am proud of what we’ve achieved.
“Win or lose, it’s going to have been a great year, but obviously I would just love to win it just for the fans of Atlanta because they’ve been so supportive right from the very start and it would be great if we could get them a win.”
Backed by billionaire Arthur Blank, who also owns the Atlanta Falcons, swashbuckling United have captured the imagination of an international, sport-hungry city that has not celebrated a trophy since the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995.
United are bookmakers’ favourites against the Timbers thanks to home advantage and a superb campaign, which saw them overcome Supporters’ Shield champions New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference showdown as their focus on young talent paid dividends.
Eales wanted to “try and prove that you can build the stars rather than bring in a star that has name recognition” at Atlanta – a tactic that has clearly worked, with free-scoring Josef Martinez this week named MLS’ Most Valuable Player.
Miguel Almiron finished runner-up in that award and is attracting interest from the Premier League, with Newcastle strongly linked.
“He’s a top talent and we’re a team that is trying to win trophies, with an owner who is a billionaire, who cares about winning,” Eales said.
“We’re in a situation where it has to be the right offer for the club, but we’re not going to accept any of the chump change figures I’ve seen in the press.
“If there’s a proper offer, if it’s the right offer for Atlanta United and the player and the league, then we’ll consider it.
“But we’re not under any sort of pressure to transfer the player so in that sense it has to be a realistic offer that measures the true value of Miguel Almiron, who is just a wonderful player.”
It has been widely-speculated that the MLS Cup final could prove Almiron’s last match for Atlanta, just as it might be for MLS Coach of the Year Martino with the Mexico national-team post seemingly in the pipeline.
Eales said the former Barcelona boss will “always be a legend of the club” – yet losing such a key figure does not scare the United president given how far they have come.
“The exciting thing for us is we have got a great base and platform to build the club,” he added.
“Whatever happens, win or lose, it’s just the start. We want to establish a dynasty and be one of the top teams in Major League soccer.
“We get to play (CONCACAF) Champions League next and we’re just going to look to get better and better each year.”
Real Madrid have named their squad for the Club World Cup in the UAE later this month.
As the defending European champions, Los Blancos will represent the continent in the global tournament from December 12-22.
Al Ain, Team Wellington, Guadalajara, Kashima Antlers, Espérance de Tunis and one of Boca Juniors or River Plate will battle out for glory in the Emirates.
Goalkeepers: Courtois, Keylor Navas and Casilla.
Defenders: Carvajal, Odriozola, Sergio Ramos, Varane, Nacho, Marcelo and Reguilón.
Midfielders: Casemiro, Llorente, Kroos, Modric, Isco, Asensio, Ceballos and Fede Valverde.
Attackers: Benzema, Bale, Mariano, Lucas and Vinicius.
The co-host of the Ballon d’Or award ceremony has been forced to apologise after the winner of the women’s award, Ada Hegerberg, was asked on stage if she knew how to twerk at the event in Paris.
The 23-year-old Lyon striker was announced as the first ever winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or by former France international David Ginola and gave an empowering speech to encourage more girls to play football.
However, as the Norway international was leaving the stage, French DJ and co-host Martin Solveig asked her if she could twerk, but the three-time women’s Champions League winner abruptly said “no” before walking away.
After the event, Hegerberg told reporters that she accepted the apology from the 42-year-old.
She was quoted on skysports.com saying: “He came to me afterwards and was really sad that it went that way. I didn’t really think about it at the time to be honest.
“I didn’t really consider it as sexual harassment or anything in the moment. I was just happy to do the dance and win the Ballon d’Or to be honest.”
Solveig was quick to apologise after his actions provoked furious criticism on social media.
Accompanied by a video apologising further to Hegerberg, Solveig wrote on Twitter: “Sincere apologies to the one I may have offended.
“My point was: I don’t invite women to twerk but dance on a Sinatra song. Watch the full sequence.
“People who have followed me for 20 years know how respectful I am especially with women.”
Three-time Olympic bronze medallist Kelly Sotherton was one of those to condemn his actions, commenting on a video of the incident, writing “Wtf?”
Solveig confirmed that he spoke to Hegerberg after the ceremony.
He posted a picture of the pair embracing and wrote: “I explained to @AdaStolsmo the buzz and she told me she understood it was a joke.
“Nevertheless my apologies to anyone who may have been offended. Most importantly congratulations to Ada.”
England defender and Lyon team-mate Lucy Bronze, who came sixth in the inaugural women’s award, believed the incident was just a joke.
“The DJ asked each person that won what their dance was but she can twerk, she was lying. It was more of a joke of making her dance,” Bronze told BBC Sport.
On receiving the award, Hegerberg said: “I would like to say a huge thanks to France Football, for letting us have this opportunity to have this award.
“It is a huge step for women’s football and the work you have put down is such an important thing for women’s football and together we will make a difference.
“I would like to end this speech, with some words to young girls all over the world. Please believe in yourself.”