The World's Game In The Heart of the Sun Belt

Atlanta gears up for another soccer showcase

More than 1,000 fans — paying $20 a head — made such an intense racket toward the end of AC Milan’s practice session at the Georgia Dome Tuesday evening that players could only oblige their autograph requests. The noise got louder as more players walked over with Sharpies in hand.

And as players for Italy’s vaunted Rossineri — including their very first American — made their way to a locker room otherwise occupied by the Atlanta Falcons, one of the most well-known youth teams in Atlanta added to the clamor.

The internationally renown Fugees got signatures from 2006 World Cup hero Gennaro Gattuso, former Dutch national team regular Clarence Seedorf and others as the prelude to the World Football Challenge.

That gesture encapsulated the buzz as more than 60 accredited media from around the world, as well as local press, gathered to advance Wednesday’s match between AC Milan and Club América of Mexico.

Club America fans waiting for autographs during Tuesday's open practice session at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

Club América and AC Milan fans wait for autographs at Tuesday's open practice session at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

It will be the second soccer match in a month at the Georgia Dome, which had never before opened its doors to the sport.

And as the city finalizes a 2018 or 2022 World Cup bid that’s due next week, match organizers are hoping an anticipated attendance of more than 40,000 will do more than just help prop up Atlanta for that effort.

On the heels of last month’s Dome friendly between Mexico and Venezuela that drew more than 50,000 spectators, this game is being seen by promoters and soccer aficionadoes alike as another opportunity for Atlanta to strengthen its ambitions of being a soccer destination city.

“It was somewhat of a coincidence that we would have two games like this in the same summer,” said Atlanta attorney Scott Moran, president of the Atlanta Fútbol Project, an umbrella organization that includes many of the groups involved in the Atlanta World Cup bid, long-term planning for the possibility of Major League Soccer and advocating other high-profile soccer events coming to the city. “This is kind of the perfect storm.”

The consortium includes the Atlanta Sports Council, the Georgia Dome and Georgia World Congress Center, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City of Atlanta, Georgia Soccer and the Atlanta Falcons, whose owner, Arthur Blank, bid for a Major League Soccer franchise but later withdrew. Last week MLS commissioner Don Garber, in outlining potential expansion MLS plans for as early as 2012, did mention Atlanta as one of five markets seriously under consideration.

Before AC Milan’s practice session, former standout Clemson defender Oguchi Onyewu was formally introduced before the media as the first American player in Italy’s Serie A in more than a decade. Onyewu’s play for the U.S. in the Confederations Cup after several years of toiling in the Belgian first division led to a three-year contract. His countryman, Alexi Lalas, parlayed his play and folk hero status in the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. into a two-year gig in Italy.

“This is a step up, this is a test you want,” said Lalas, who will provide color commentary for Wednesday’s match that will be shown on ESPN2. “The only concern you do have is if he doesn’t play.”

The low-key Onyewu wasn’t asked to address that subject during a lengthy press conference with questions offered in English, Spanish and Italian. And he tried to brush off notions that he’s carrying a major burden for American field players at the highest levels of European soccer.

U.S. national team defender Oguchi Onyewu is expected to make his AC Milan debut on Wednesday.

U.S. national team defender Oguchi Onyewu may make his AC Milan debut in Wednesday's match at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

“I’m aware of the facts but obviously I’m trying to look past that and look forward to the football situation in Milan,” he said. “There are no guarantees. I came here with the impression that I have to fight for my job.”

What’s encouraged Atlanta soccer organizers about these games is how the city has come up so prominently in planning for summertime international matches. The Mexico-Venezuela match was organized by Soccer United Marketing, an arm of MLS that has been actively seeking new markets.

Wednesday’s match is part of a four-team round-robin tournament in the World Football Challenge, which is in its first year and is the creation of the Los Angeles-based Creative Artists Agency. Italian champions Inter Milan and England’s Chelsea are the other teams involved. Other international tours of the U.S. summer include forthcoming visits by Spanish and European champions Barcelona and their archrivals Real Madrid, which has splashed out more than $200 million in transfer fees on two players alone — former AC Milan star Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United.

The crowd figures in so many American cities — familiar soccer hotbeds and untried places like Atlanta — have been strong, whether they’ve been for friendlies or for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Friday’s World Football Challenge match between AC Milan and Chelsea in Baltimore, another soccer hosting newcomer, is already sold out with more than 71,000 spectators expected. Chelsea’s friendly on Saturday in Seattle drew 67,000.

The most intense environment had the smallest crowd — a capacity of 27,000 in Los Angeles that saw AC Milan and David Beckham, who was taunted by Galaxy fans after returning to the MLS team following a loan stint with the Italian club. One fan, whose heckling prompted Beckham to confront him in the stands, received a lifetime ban from the premises — the kind of punishment reserved for violent fan behavior in Europe.

The World Football Challenge opener in Palo Alto, Calif., on Sunday between Club América and Inter Milan drew more than 30,000. That matches the estimated advanced tickets that have been sold for Wednesday’s Georgia Dome match.

“If we can hit 30,000 or 40,000 or more on a weeknight in Atlanta, I think we’ll be fine,” Moran said.


1 David Berry { 07.22.09 at 9:30 am }


Thanks for being back with soccer. My hope is that people in Atlanta will realize how much soccer has grown. In my 40 plus years watching and playing soccer here, it is impressive how many more fans there actually are. I wish the game tonight would be a sell out, but 30-40 thousand would be super. From the ’68 Champion Chiefs to what is happening with the WC 2018 bid, Atlanta is a soccer city.

See you tonight.

Dave Berry

2 Matthew Steel { 10.10.10 at 5:21 pm }

Soccer is becoming increasingly popular in the world. More and more amateur games are being played by the average person. I wrote about my ideas for a no-cost game in my article here:

3 vomhinomove { 03.20.13 at 11:45 am }

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