One of the biggest MLS transfers of the summer window so far didn’t involve a player, but an executive.
Last Friday, it was announced that Atlanta United president Darren Eales will join Newcastle United as CEO in August. Eales joined Atlanta shortly after MLS granted owner Arthur Blank an expansion slot in 2014, oversaw the club’s launch and move to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017 and helped assemble the coaching staff and roster that won MLS Cup in just their second season. Under his watch, Atlanta set new MLS attendance records and became perhaps the highest-profile team in the entire league, but also struggled to transition after former manager Tata Martino left following the championship year of 2018.
He now takes over a club looking to make a similar step forward in England — albeit not one with the clean slate of an MLS expansion team. Newcastle, of course, was bought last October by a group led by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, which is controlled by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The takeover was extremely controversial due to Saudi Arabia’s awful human rights record and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA reportedly concluded was state-sponsored (a conclusion contested by Saudi Arabia). According to Amnesty International, the country’s ownership of the club is an exercise in sportswashing, a case of a nation and its leader taking over a team in hopes of bettering their international image. When he starts in a month, Eales will become one of the key figures in that effort.
He’ll also be playing a leading role in one of the most ambitious football projects in the world. Newcastle, which has spent most of the last decade in the bottom half of the Premier League, is aiming to break into the sport’s elite, following the path forged by United Arab Emirates-owned Manchester City (which also owns New York City FC and other clubs as City Football Group), as well as Qatari-led Paris St. Germain.
As surprising as it may seem that one of the leaders of that effort will come from MLS, Eales isn’t the only Premier League bigwig to move from the U.S. league to England in recent years. American executive and former Real Salt Lake and D.C. United technical director Dane Murphy is CEO of newly-promoted Nottingham Forest, while Kevin Thelwell left his position as New York Red Bulls’ head of sport to take over as director of football at Everton in February. Another American executive, Tom Glick, was named president of business at Chelsea FC earlier this week after most recently serving as head of Tepper Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of MLS expansion side Charlotte FC. They all follow in the footsteps of Ivan Gazidis, a member of MLS’ founding management team who left the league in 2008 to take over as CEO of Arsenal, where Colorado Rapids owner Stan Kroenke then had a minority ownership stake. Gazidis left Arsenal in 2018 to become chief executive of AC Milan.
The four current U.S. execs in the Premier league took various routes to their current positions. Eales and Thelwell are both English, and both had significant roles at Premier League clubs before they ever moved to MLS. Murphy got his foot in the door in the U.K. in 2019 as CEO of Barnsley, which was being run by American businessman Paul Conway when Murphy was hired. The club narrowly avoided relegation from the Championship during his first season in charge, then made a shocking run to the promotion playoffs in the 2020-21 campaign. That was enough to attract the attention of Forest, which hired him last summer and won the promotion playoffs in May. Glick worked for Derby County, Manchester City and spent a brief period leading NYCFC before making his way to North Carolina.
None of these paths are easily replicable, and four people doesn’t equal a trend. But the fact that they’re all in prominent roles in the Premier League is evidence that MLS is emerging as at least a minor proving ground for executives looking to move to the highest levels of the sport. If the quartet succeed in their new roles, the door to Europe could conceivably crack open a little bit wider for soccer executives in North America.
Sources who have worked both in MLS and in the Premier League and who asked to remain anonymous to prevent running afoul of both their current and prospective future employers said executives with experience on this side of the Atlantic already have a few factors working in their favor when it comes to drawing attention from Premier League outfits.