Empire XI: Atlanta is a chance MLS needs to take

Atlanta Georgia

Christian Araos
Staff Writer

Remember the word ‘niche?’

That was the word used to describe soccer in America up until (and a bit through) 2010. It was the national media’s half-hearted way to accept that the sport was sticking around. That type of thinking is still prevalent in soccer today and the news that MLS will expand to Atlanta will come as a direct challenge to that frame of thought.

As reported by Philly.com, MLS will announce Atlanta as an expansion franchise; the league’s 22nd and most transitional of the bunch. The obvious reasons why Atlanta is getting a franchise is the fact that it is the biggest television market currently without an MLS team — and the fact that MLS’ southern incursion cannot be successful without a franchise in the biggest city in the region.

There is rampant skepticism about Atlanta, mostly substantiated by the city’s less-than-perfect history with sports franchises and the potential competition that would exist in the region. The direct comparison to the Atlanta Braves’ attendance struggles are one thing, but the assertion that the South does not support soccer as vibrantly as cities with established soccer franchises sends up red flags.

While there is certainly some credence to those notions, they are not notions that should prevent the league from trying to establish a franchise in Atlanta. The league’s stated goals suggest otherwise. Atlanta is the cheerleader the timid high school senior wants to take to prom — and he has already told all of his friends about his intentions. His pals warn him that she’s a heartbreaker, but ultimately, the decision is his to make. He could play it safe and go for the girl who will probably say yes but wonder what could have been — or he could take the shot and ask her.

To the 18-year old high school kid, the advice is simple: take the shot.

The league’s ambitions are well known, regardless whether or not they are perceived to be outlandish. Therein lies the reason MLS has to go forward. It already said it wanted to well before it chose to. Commissioner Don Garber’s words may be the bricks he uses to build MLS into a fortified league on-par with the rest of the world, or the shovel he digs his own grave with, but given the league’s growth in status during the past decade, there is much to infer that the former is what is taking place.

Atlanta is a critical piece of Garber’s plans. Its demographics fit well to the demographics that have driven MLS to where it is at today and they fit well to where MLS wants to be in the future. The so-called yuppie population comprised of young, educated professionals has risen by more than 60% in the Downtown Atlanta area alone. This is the populace that goes to MLS games the most and has been the league’s target audience for much of the past few years.

The city’s African-American and Latin American populations are the target audiences the league has in its sights for the future. It will be crucial for the team’s owners to market soccer to this audience. Soccer United Marketing has already made inroads in that market with recent Gold Cup and Mexico friendlies being held at the Georgia Dome. While both of those games were attendance successes, it was largely because of the Mexican National Team’s presence. The challenge remains to get that region’s population into supporting MLS as well as their pre-existing affiliations.

Atlanta is also home to a little media giant in Turner Broadcasting. With television continuing to be a platform that MLS struggles with, the placement of an MLS franchise in Turner’s backyard could capture the brass’ eye and motivate the network into a potential MLS rights bid. While that does not immediately guarantee a ratings boost, Turner broadcasting is one of the largest cable networks in America with a reach far greater than NBCSN or Fox Sports 1.

It also needs to be noted that there are 16 Fortune 500 companies in Georgia. Sponsorship revenue is something MLS teams have varying success with (see jerseys) but it should not be a surprise that teams with the highest sponsorship revenues are the ones that are near the top of the table. If the Atlanta franchise, headed by prominent Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, can attract Fortune 500 sponsors to its team and to MLS, then the league as a whole will continue to improve given the influx of sponsorship dollars.

The fears surrounding the move to Atlanta come largely from fans concerned with the experience of watching soccer stemming from concerns regarding attendance and football stadiums and field turf etc. The concerns have credence in that the fan experience is what powered MLS’ current boom, but the hard truth for fans to realize is that they cannot power the league much further than where it is now without chartering new territory. Current fans and incoming fans for the next four franchises will sustain what it currently has. For the league to grow further, the business side comes into play and in business, you need to take a shot at some point to take your product to new heights — even if it comes at a risk to what you already have.

In Atlanta, MLS sees its shot and it is going to take it.

Empire XI

1. Tom Sermanni was fired as Head Coach of the US Women’s National Team late Sunday night, despite winning 2–0 to China earlier in the day. While the firing was a surprise, the team’s dreadful performance at the Algarve Cup reportedly gave US Soccer President Sunil Gulati great concern. It has also been reported that the players on the team were dissatisfied at Sermanni’s lack of direction ahead of the World Cup Qualifying Tournament.

2. It would appear that Sermanni, a coach who developed a reputation for getting the most out of a team in Australia that did not have the amount of resources and talent that bigger nations have, ultimately failed when coaching a team like the US who has those resources and talent at his disposal. Sounds a lot like David Moyes.

3. Only one home team won last weekend in MLS. If anything, that is enough cause to avoid betting on the league given the week-to-week uncertainty. However, this early trend of home teams dropping points may be more illustrative of who the contenders will be in the long haul. So the quickest way for a team to emerge is to simply win at home.

4. While it is expected that most of the pieces for New York City FC will come together during the summer, Orlando City SC are upgrading as they prepare for life in MLS. The Orlando Sentinel reports the team is planning to play a part of its inaugural season in its new stadium as their current projected completion date on the stadium was made with the worst-case scenario in mind. The club has also added two high profile college coaches for its academy that will be fully funded by the club.

5. While Stu Holden’s injury struggles have been well documented since 2010, have a thought for Chris Pontius as well. The D.C. United winger will likely miss several months as he undergoes surgery to remove scar tissue on the nerves surrounding his surgically repaired left hamstring. Pontius struggled last season due to a groin injury and has already had surgery on his right hamstring as well as the broken leg suffered back in 2011.

6. What makes Pontius’ career situation so unfortunate was that he was on a similar career path as Graham Zusi — and that includes a solid place on the US Men’s National Team. The U.S. continue to have some depth issues at left wing and Pontius, a former MLS Best XI player, would have fit in perfectly. D.C. United fans can also lament at how good the team could have been. Granted, there are other significant reasons why United have struggled, but the roster was being built around Pontius and when his career took a turn for the worst, so did DC United.

7. There’s no denying that Jozy Altidore’s year with Sunderland has been disastrous. The club are staring relegation in the face and Manager Gus Poyet has benched Altidore and has him playing with the U21s, which adds a degree of insult to the benching as well. Poyet has switched his formation to a 5-3-2 as the club tries to use its games in hand to climb out of the relegation zone. That formation does not fit Altidore very well, and with the Black Cats averaging less than a goal per game, it is evident that none of Poyet’s formations are fitting any of Sunderland’s strikers very well either.

8. While Altidore is struggling, it’s funny how one game can alter the perception of a player as is the case with Clint Dempsey. Before his hat trick on Saturday, Dempsey’s 2014 has been the subject of mixed reviews after an unsuccessful loan spell with Fulham, the suspension for punching Mark Bloom and a mixed performance against Mexico. In short, Dempsey’s last 90 minutes in Portland erased the perceived poor form he had in MLS and with the USMNT over the past 6-9 months.

9. Julian Green had a mixed performance in his USMNT debut. While he created chances going forward with some smart running and skill, he lost track of Mexico right wing back Paul Aguilar allowing him to shoot the shot that would lead to Alan Pulido’s equalizer. It was as egregious a mistake as Omar Gonzalez losing sight of Pulido on the same play. Green will also be out three weeks after injuring his shoulder on the slip that ultimately resulted in the equalizing goal. With the Bundesliga title already secured, as long as Bayern Munich have to play in the Champions League, the window of opportunity to get Green first-team minutes in the league will exist.

10. Eric Wynalda interviewed himself again ahead of the NASL season and commented on taking the New York Cosmos whom the Atlanta Silverbacks lost to in last year’s Soccer Bowl. When describing the Cosmos, Wynalda made his own celestial reference.

“Ok there’s two ways to look at this,” Wynalda said. “They are the Cosmos—here’s the way I look at it—every once in awhile, there is a planet and then they have to downgrade it, they call it a dwarf planet. So maybe that’s what we’re looking at.”

11. The New York Red Bulls did well to come away with a draw in Montreal but while Head Coach Mike Petke’s decision to bench Dax McCarty ultimately did not harm the team’s chances, it would have been interesting to see how long McCarty would not have played if Roy Miller had not gotten injured. The Red Bull midfield is thin enough as is as shown by the fact that Petke started a three-man midfield comprised of no actual central midfielders, so benching McCarty to send a message may have been impactful, but the risk taken to send the message is too great to take right now with New York still winless in the season.

Christian is a supporter of American, Chilean and good soccer. He writes about soccer here and World Football Weekly. He also write about Ithaca College sports for The Ithacan and about whatever else for Esquire. Follow him on Twitter, you can email him here.