MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — Frank de Boer never seems to get flustered. The stoic Dutchman can switch from one language to another with ease. He speaks bluntly and rarely betrays any sense of doubt in his coaching abilities.
Yet, this has been a year when he's had to show some flexibility.
Maybe he didn't have all the answers. Perhaps he needed to listen to his players a bit more.
"As a coach, you want to put your stamp a little bit on the team," de Boer said after a training session at Atlanta United's glitzy suburban complex. "But in the beginning, maybe we did it too much. We put too much stamp on it."
De Boer chuckles.
He is clearly enjoying this most rewarding of comebacks.
After failing so miserably in Serie A and the Premier League, then enduring a sluggish start and some missteps away from the field in Atlanta, de Boer has guided United to the cusp of its second straight championship in Major League Soccer. His club will host Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday night before another raucous crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the winner advancing to face the Seattle Sounders for the MLS Cup title.
Seattle upset Los Angeles FC 3-1 for the Western Conference crown Tuesday night.
"I knew it's always difficult coming to a new culture. They have to know you. I have to know the players. So it always takes time," de Boer said. "You think, OK, everything is going to be very easy, you're going to win your games easily. No, it's not like that. That's why I chose Atlanta United. I wanted to feel that they would give me time."
Arriving in Atlanta not long after United had given this title-starved city its first major championship since baseball's Braves in 1995, de Boer faced immediate skepticism. He replaced the immensely popular Tata Martino, who needed only two years to transform an expansion team into a champion before leaving to become coach of the Mexican national team.
De Boer had lasted mere months at both Inter Milan and Crystal Palace, his two previous coaching stops.
When United went out in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League and managed just one win in its first six MLS matches, it looked as though de Boer might be headed for another short coaching stint in Atlanta.
"Of course, from the beginning, we wanted a good result," de Boer said. "But still, we knew if it's not going well, the confidence is there. We can build something here. I'm very pleased with that."
A proponent of the "Total Football" philosophy that is ingrained in the Dutch game, with its value on possession and the flexibility to float from one position to another while maintaining the lineup's organizational structure, de Boer seemed to be imposing a style that just didn't mesh with a club built on the counter-attacking, seemingly chaotic system Martino preferred.
The squad had just one season before suddenly looking all out of sync, struggling to create scoring chances.
In retrospect, de Boer was probably too heavy-handed in dealing with his new team
He needed to win them over first.
"We obviously came off a very successful year playing a certain way. We were like, 'Why would we change it just because a new coach is coming in?'" midfielder Julian Gressel said. "It was maybe two extremes going at each other."
De Boer didn't exactly endear himself to Atlanta's fans, who have shattered virtually every attendance record in MLS, by calling them "spoiled" — a remark he quickly apologized for while explaining that it carried a different connotation in his native language. He stirred up more controversy by saying the demand for equal pay in women's international soccer was "ridiculous," leading to another hasty apology.
But the criticism faded as Atlanta finally began to resemble a defending champion.
In addition to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference (the same spot they finished a year ago under Martino, though with 11 fewer points), United added a pair of trophies to its collection by winning the U.S. Open Cup — and a spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions League — as well as the Campeones Cup with a thrilling victory over Mexican powerhouse América.
"We've talked a lot and found a way to be successful," Gressel said. "Frank obviously has adjusted. He's talked a lot with a lot of guys. Communication has been, obviously, the key factor during that tough stretch at the beginning of the year. We've come out on the better end of it."
United won its first two playoff games with shutout victories over New England and Philadelphia despite the absence of star defender Miles Robinson, who is out with a hamstring injury. Atlanta gained another home game in the conference final when top-seeded New York City FC was upset by Toronto.
Each victory takes de Boer a little farther from his embarrassing stint at Inter Milan, where he was sacked after less than three months. And that dismally short tenure at Crystal Palace, where he lasted just four Premier League games before getting a pink slip.
"After six months, you can normally see a little bit the hand of the manager, what he wants," de Boer said. "I think if you've won two titles and are still involved for the most precious of titles, you can be satisfied."
But, he quickly added, "I want to win everything."