Atlanta United now have a seat on Aberdeen's board. Why?

By on December 3, 2019


One wonders what Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes thought when he walked into Atlanta United’s 71,000 capacity Mercedes Benz Stadium, with its retractable roof and 62,000 square feet wraparound video screen. Aberdeen’s home, Pittodrie, with its non-regulation sized pitch, crumbling stands and gale-force winds swirling in from the North Sea, is a rather different venue. Now, however, Aberdeen and Atlanta United have plenty in common, being sister clubs and all.

Last week saw a “strategic partnership” announced between the Scottish Premiership and Major League Soccer clubs, with Atlanta United’s parent company, AMB Sports & Entertainment, also taking a minority ownership stake in Aberdeen, investing £2m in the Pittodrie club. Darren Eales, the Atlanta United president, now sits on the Dons’ board and, alongside new Aberdeen chairman Dave Cormack, presented the two clubs under one umbrella.

“There are some good win-wins for both parties,” Eales explained. “Sometimes you hear of these partnerships between clubs and, for the want of a better phrase, there’s no skin in the game, but we put some money in to show our commitment.” According to Eales, Atlanta United had been on the lookout for a “partner club” for some time. As he put it, the Fives Stripes were “looking at any way we can punch above our weight.”

Of course, it’s not uncommon for North American soccer teams to be tethered to a foreign club. Look at the relationship that existed between Chivas USA and Chivas Guadalajara for a number of years or the one between Rayo OKC and Rayo Vallecano in the North American Soccer League. Most notably there is New York City FC, owned by the same parent company that also owns Manchester City and a number of other satellite clubs around the world.

The partnership between Aberdeen and Atlanta United is a little different, though. Until now the dynamic of any cross-club relationship in MLS has almost always been weighted towards the foreign partner. North American teams have been used as scouting outposts and loan farms by more illustrious European clubs (look at how Man City used their NYC FC links to sign Jack Harrison and Zack Steffen while also sending the likes of Angelino and Yangel Herrera on loan there), but this time it’s the other way round. It is Atlanta United (or AMB Sports & Entertainment to be totally accurate) who have the ownership stake in Aberdeen. That in itself is significant. It may not be a record-breaking home crowd, a multimillion dollar signing or a piece of silverware, but this is another landmark for Atlanta United.



Aberdeen are planning to leave Pittodrie in the coming years. Photograph: Stuart Wallace/BPI/Shutterstock

Aberdeen fans should be enthused by their new link-up, even if they are the little sibling. The introduction of Atlanta United as an MLS franchise in 2017 was a watershed moment for North American soccer. The Five Stripes have since become MLS’s first mega club and they have done so through shrewd investment, community cultivation and innovative thinking.

Atlanta United aren’t the only sports team Aberdeen have joined in the AMB Sports & Entertainment stable. The Atlanta Falcons are also under the ownership of Arthur Blank (the co-founder of The Home Depot and chairman of AMB Sports & Entertainment) and while the Falcons have not made the impact on the NFL that Atlanta United have on MLS, they have had some success in recent years. Had it not been for a record-breaking comeback from Tom Brady and the New England Patriots the Falcons would have won the Super Bowl in 2017 (this season has been rather more disappointing with the team currently in last place in the NFC South).

But it’s off the field where the value of this new partnership will be felt most of all. Aberdeen are likely to soon have a new home, with the Dons aiming to leave Pittodrie by 2023. A 20,000-capacity venue, Kingsford Stadium, on the outskirts of the city will be a long way from the $1.6bn, otherworldly Mercedes Benz Stadium (a wraparound video board probably won’t feature in Scotland), but the Dons clearly believe they can learn something from Atlanta United to improve their own match-day offering. Maybe we should expect giant Tifos and the Viking Clap at Aberdeen home games in the not-so-distant future.

This in itself is significant. From the forming of somewhat artificial ‘Ultras’ groups to the chants heard in the stands to the very names of MLS clubs (see the number of teams that identity as FCs (football clubs) rather than SCs (soccer clubs)), the North American game has long sought to ape the ways of European soccer, which is viewed as more authentic and credible. Now, it seems the exchange of ideas could go both ways. Some European clubs are looking to MLS for new ideas.

Eales insists Atlanta United won’t use their minority stake in Aberdeen to launch a full takeover of Aberdeen. They aren’t about to start a Red Bull-style global network of teams, he says. And yet if the partnership with Aberdeen is successful they will surely look to replicate that in another country, in another league, with another club.

For Aberdeen, this new relationship presents them with a number of opportunities at a critical juncture in their history. European clubs have previously looked to MLS and North America for opportunity, but it has always been with a view to colonisation. This is a collaboration with a very different dynamic.



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