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Dublin: 14 °C Sunday 18 August, 2019
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'A lot of clubs can sell you a dream but they actually backed it up': the Irishman and his American dream

Dubliner Chris McCann was crowned an MLS champion earlier this month after Atlanta United delivered on all of the expectation.

Image: USA TODAY Network

IT WAS BACK in the summer when I last spoke to Chris McCann. After 20 league games, his Atlanta United side had lost just four times and were everyone’s favourite for the championship.

It was just their second season in Major League Soccer but after an impressive debut, an expectation and anticipation followed them everywhere. Despite their infancy, they seemed to have everything: the players, the crowds, the results.  

At the time, McCann acknowledged the pressure but felt Atlanta had enough to ignore the noise and concentrate on the ultimate goal.  

You have to accept that we’re the team everyone wants to beat and try and keep quiet these days. But we’re quietly confident that we’re good enough to go on a run and show we’re a really good side. Step by step, game by game.”       

Five months and 19 MLS fixtures later and Atlanta were crowned champions. There were some minor wobbles along the way but no bottle job. Buoyed by a remarkable collection of young, raw talent, they particularly excelled in the play-offs and conceded just twice in five postseason games. 

With the final in their own backyard and played in front of over 73,000, it always seemed a stretch for their opponents, the Portland Timbers, to go there and cause an upset. And so it proved as striker Josef Martinez racked up his 35th goal of the season and later flicked on for Franco Escobar to seal the 2-0 victory.  

For McCann, it took a while for everything to properly sink in. 

“It’s just crazy,” he says.

“For it to happen on a night when my wife was there, my little boy, my friends, my brother who came over for it…that was special. It didn’t properly hit me for a few days but now it’s starting to hit home that I’ve achieved it. Just the whole package – the stadium, the feel around the club, the fan expectation, the amount of supporters there every week. It’s an amazing feeling. To be honest, I was never expecting it to ever be like that. To be as hyped up, to be as big in terms of the soccer culture in Atlanta. So that’s why it was so special. Because people said it would never work.” 

The celebrations were wild, excessive and pretty memorable. Two days after the victory, there was a parade in the team’s honour. The partying continued well into Monday night and the trophy ended up on stage in well-known local strip club Magic City, draped in a team scarf and surrounded by dollar bills.

McCann lets out a laugh before attempting an explanation.

“I don’t know what to say about that, to be honest. It is what it is. No harm done. Just a good night.”   

I don’t even know how it ended up in there. But it had the best seat in the house and I think it earned a few quid as well.” 

He’s back in Dublin when we chat, a brief weekend pitstop before Christmas in the UK with his in-laws. Coming to the end of the year, reflection is inevitable. It’s been quite the adventure since he rolled the dice in the summer of 2016.  

“Atlanta really sold the club to me,” he says. 

They had a vision of where they wanted to be. They didn’t just want a five or 10-year plan. They wanted to build a team to win right now. A lot of clubs can sell you a dream but they actually backed it up. They brought in the players and the coaching staff and a team that the whole city could be proud of and support. I never thought that I’d be standing there at the end of a second season as an MLS champion. I was potentially going back to re-sign with Wigan at that time. I just took a chance and thought, ‘Right, this is the best decision for right now’ but since I’ve moved there, my family have been happy and settled and everything has gone so well. Even for my little boy growing up in these surroundings and seeing the MLS Cup win is fantastic. He can look back and see his Dad making some history and winning the title for the city. It’s nice to say I’ve gone across and won another title in a different country. It’s something not a lot of people can say.
And it’s the first championship in the city in over 20 years.”

For many, MLS remains a league that fails to carry much of a punch. They hear about it only when a high-profile, veteran signing is unveiled or when Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s latest volley is shared on social media. Outside of that, it’s easy to ignore. 

MLS: Atlanta United FC-MLS CUP Champions Parade McCann got to experience the MLS Cup success with friends and family. Source: USA TODAY Network

Even within football circles there’s an attitude of the league being a novelty, something that’s not meant to be taken too seriously. 

But, the Atlanta story is incredible for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s unheard of for a brand new team to make such an immediate impact. Secondly, it’s unheard of for any team to boast such astonishing attendances. Thirdly, it’s unheard of for an MLS side to carve out an immediate football culture in a local community that’s so heavily immersed in NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.      

But McCann admits even he didn’t know the finer details about the league when he first signed.   

“When I went over, the whole idea of the structure, the conferences, everything – I didn’t understand it,” he says. 

“But winning MLS Cup and me coming home and breaking it down for friends and family, it opens their eyes. You explain to them that it’s the top division in the country and about the amount of people coming to see the games. The average attendance for us every week was between 40,000 – 50,000. We had sold-out home games of 72,000. It’s nuts. You don’t get that unless you’re at the biggest teams in the world. I never thought I’d be playing in front of crowds like that. And there’s a waiting list of about 15,000 for a season ticket”.       

But nobody really grasped it until they visited and came to watch us play in the stadium. I had my Mum and Dad, my brother, my friends and the reaction was, ‘This is insane’. People think football only exists in England but when you open your eyes you get to see what’s out there. It’s mind boggling how the last two years have gone in terms of starting as a whole new franchise and then winning the championship. So, it’s fantastic to go across the water and leave my mark there.”

McCann readily admits his surprise at both his club and the league. With the likes of Kenwyne Jones and Tyrone Mears having also signed for Atlanta ahead of their debut campaign, he expected the experienced, veteran imports from the UK to prove crucial to the team’s fortunes.

But, in keeping with how MLS has grown in recent seasons and stepped out of its past a little, the special ingredients proved to be those who slipped under the radar.

Martinez, a diminutive 25-year-old Venezuelan striker, has been an astonishing acquisition and has managed 54 goals in his two years, breaking the regular season record back in August. Paraguayan Miguel Almiron is a year younger and has found the net 22 times while contributing 30 assists. Unsurprisingly, the pair have been linked with moves to Europe, including the Premier League. 

Atlanta United defeates Timbers to win MLS Cup Josef Martinez has been an astonishing acquisition for Atlanta, but not the only one. Source: Curtis Compton

“Unless you’re doing your research or watching games avidly, you would never have heard of some of these guys,” McCann says.

“But a lot of them came through big clubs when they were younger like Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, Lanus. Our striker Josef has been around a few clubs in Europe without many taking proper notice of him. And the credit goes to our club and the scouting network we have for finding these guys and they’re still so young with so much potential. They just needed to be given the right tools and platform to build on what they already had.”

When I got over to Atlanta and experienced it for myself, it was like, ‘Hang on, these are the real deal’. The quality they have, the speed they have, the power, the pace they possess – it’s on another level. Josef is as hungry as they come and out to prove a point. He’s broken all sorts of records this year and if you didn’t know him before he arrived here, the whole world definitely knows him now. Miguel (Almiron) is a talented young boy – quick, fast, strong – and can turn a game on its head by himself. That’s probably why he has so many clubs chasing him at the moment. Then there’s Ezequiel Barco who was one of the most expensive transfers which probably had people over here scratching their heads. But then you watch him and play with him! There are so many great South American players and once they’re given the right opportunity to shine, you can see what they’re really about.” 

McCann, who turned 31 in the summer, now slots into the ‘old pro’ category. But Atlanta boast quite a few of them too and relied on them in a different way. There’s the game management and the on-field leadership but, just as important are the off-field details. After all, MLS takes a while to get used to.  

“If you went down the road of bringing just young kids in then you’ll struggle, especially in this league,” McCann says. 

SOCCER: OCT 21 MLS - Chicago Fire at Atlanta United FC Given the age profile of some of the Atlanta players, McCann (31) slots into the 'old pro' category. Source: Rich Von Biberstein

“When you’re a younger kid you’re quite emotional and raw and you wear your heart on your sleeve. You need those older guys to keep you in line and upbeat and your spirits high. We played some games this year and results didn’t go right and performances weren’t great. But when you have some steady veterans – Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst, Brad Guzan – they’ve all been there and know what the league is like and how unpredictable it can be. They have the nous to go out and say, ‘Listen, it will be okay – one result isn’t going to define our season and one bad performance won’t define your career’. To have those guys breaking down the league and keeping you in the right mindframe is crucial. Even for me, I was new to it all. I was inexperienced so the travel took its toll, the games were fast-paced. But that’s what happens. The guys told me, ‘It will be fine. Just keep doing what you’re doing. It will get easier’”.

With Atlanta lifting the 2018 title, it means that in the last six years, Major League Soccer has had six different champions. There hasn’t been a back-to-back winner since Robbie Keane’s LA Galaxy in 2012. And the sides that have been successful recently – Toronto, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta – have all managed to quickly forge their own identity and fine-tune a feverish support. With Minnesota and Los Angeles FC also offering up some encouraging elements since arriving on the scene, the league is certainly heading in the right direction.

MLS 2018: DC United vs Atlanta United Jul 21 McCann says there will always be detractors but that Major League Soccer continues to head in the right direction. Source: Cal Sport Media

“Five or ten years ago people just dismissed MLS,” McCann says.

When players went over, people thought it was a retirement league. But when we started, New York City had Patrick Vieira in charge and were coming through, Toronto were doing really well and it was all starting to grow. When the bigger players come over, it does help generate popularity but I think we’ve bucked that trend. When people see the type of football that’s being played here, it’s not just a league of older, ageing players. There’s young, exciting players and a lot of South American talent in the league. People who have never taken notice of MLS will never understand and will always dismiss it as somewhere people go to play out their last few years. But I can tell you it’s far from that. It’s a fast-paced league, full of intensity. Yeah, Ibrahimovic coming over, Rooney too – these are all big names and helping to build the league. But in the same breath there’s Sebastian Giovinco at Toronto and he’s 31. He could play in any team in the world because he’s that good.”

You can see how teams are trying to build. In another five or 10 years, I think it will be a league that people will watch on a frequent basis and not just sit down when the final is on. It’s gonna take a while to buck the trend of people dismissing it but it’s going in the right direction and our club are setting a really good standard for others to aim at, especially with Cincinnati coming next year and then David Beckham’s Miami side and Nashville both in 2020. The league is growing and all eyes will be on it in the next few years.”

MLS 2018: Atlanta United FC vs Houston Dynamo MAR 03 Former Barcelona and Argentina manager Tata Martino was in charge of Atlanta for the past two seasons. Source: Cal Sport Media

With the title in the bag, Atlanta are now bracing themselves for a transitionary period. After a two-year stint in charge, coach Tata Martino (‘a fantastic person and one of the nicest, humblest guys’, according to McCann) has left and is expected to take the Mexico national team job. There are question marks about the future of certain players too. And, particularly in MLS, it’s tough for a side to come back and repeat the championship trick. Added to the mix is the Concacaf Champions League and Atlanta start their odyssey with a round of 16 tie against Costa Rican side Herediano in the third week of February, a fortnight before the new league season even begins.      

Still, McCann believes that if they stick to the blueprint and keep the tinkering to a minimum, they have an excellent chance of delivering again in 2019. 

“When we came into the league last season, I don’t think anyone knew what to really expect from us but by the end of the season, everyone did,” he says. 

“Teams didn’t let us have our own way. They tried to catch on and stop us from playing but the manager still found ways and styles and tactics that allowed us to – but just differently. With a new manager* coming in, he’ll probably want to implement his own style, new players might arrive and it might take some time to gel. But you don’t want to rock the boat too much. You don’t want to change a lot of what’s gone on. You want to keep the same flow, same personalities and same style of football. Everyone will be out to beat us. So, more than anything it’ll be about concentrating on ourselves and not resting on our laurels. You want to stay hungry and positive and try to win another one.”

*Since this article was published, Atlanta have announced Frank de Boer as their new manager.    

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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