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

Soccer and the Falcons stadium proposal

Arthur Blank’s stated preference for a downtown outdoor stadium for the Atlanta Falcons — without a retractable roof that he says is too costly — is catching some flak for more than just that reason, and not just from the folks at the Georgia Dome who risk losing their primary tenant.

As my former AJC colleague Tony Barnhart wrote this morning, without a weather-proof venue, Atlanta risks losing a lot of events that have become a vibrant part of the city’s sports scene.

The Falcons owner and team president Rich McKay point out that an outdoor facility with natural grass is optimal for soccer, and it should be heartening to the Atlanta soccer community that the Falcons’ soccer interest remains strong.

Blank is harboring long-range hopes of landing a Major League Soccer franchise, dependent on a new facility for his NFL team that he has wanted for years. And MLS commissioner Don Garber recently reiterated the league’s desire to have Atlanta on board.

A new Falcons stadium also has been included in the Atlanta venue component as part of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s World Cup bid submitted to FIFA last week, with the Dome as the ready-to-go option.

The Atlanta stadium tussle figures go on for some time, beyond the December deadline for FIFA’s decisions on selecting host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, minus final venue choices.

The threat of not getting an MLS team is the greater concern. Atlanta possesses one of the two critical factors the league has required for expansion or relocation: A committed ownership group.

The other is a proper place to play. If Blank’s dream stadium doesn’t come true, then men’s professional soccer in Atlanta will be the biggest casualty. The Falcons likely would remain at the Dome, along with the SEC Championship game, Final Fours, ACC and SEC basketball tournaments and other events that occasionally are staged there.

Blank has prided himself on making the Falcons organization a positive and influential corporate and sporting citizen, and to a large degree that has happened. The Falcons are no longer a laughingstock, either on the field or in the community. That they’re upfront about their interest in soccer is a boon that the sport in this city hasn’t enjoyed in decades.

But his announcement this week also underscores the tensions that have existed for some time over the promotion of college and professional sports in Atlanta. Soccer could be caught in the squeeze if those differences aren’t resolved about a new Falcons stadium.

Gary Stokan, who leads the Atlanta World Cup bid group and is a former soccer marketer for Adidas, departed earlier this year as executive director of the Atlanta Sports Council and now presides over the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which was spun off from the ASC. He also is the chief operating officer for the College Football Hall of Fame that will be relocating to Atlanta from South Bend, Ind.

A sinister mind might wonder if Blank’s aversion to a retractable roof isn’t just about the costs. If all, or even some, of those events did leave Atlanta, the sports offerings in Atlanta would be reduced, especially during the fall football season. There would be less competition for the Falcons for the attention (and dollars) of Atlanta sports fans not fanatically tethered to the exploits of UGA, Georgia Tech, or other college teams, etc., etc.

Admittedly, that’s an Oliver Stone scenario. The Braves, who play in summer, have been outspokenly in favor of having pro sports promoted better. They don’t have any serious competitive threats to their season, since both the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and the revived Atlanta Beat of Women’s Professional Soccer are in very small niches. An MLS team would be in a bigger niche.

In 1997, after the Braves moved to Turner Field, a local soccer group that included Phil Woosnam felt extremely chastened as it fought vainly to preserve Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as a soccer venue.

The old home of the Braves was absolutely going to be razed, but there were suspicions that the Braves, and Robert Dale Morgan, Stokan’s predecessor at the ASC, were either hostile to a bigger soccer imprint in Atlanta or at least indifferent to it.

An outdoor stadium built for the Falcons would mean not only keeping the possibility of MLS alive, but also having it stage friendlies such as those last year and this coming summer at the Dome, World Cup qualifying and other big-time soccer events.

Atlanta could finally become a major soccer city and shed its notorious fragmentation in that sport. There’s time to make something work with or without the World Cup coming here, but right now the larger Atlanta sports community appears to be very divided.

May 20, 2010   1 Comment

International soccer returns to Georgia Dome

What’s been rumored for several weeks was made official today: Soccer is returning to the Georgia Dome this summer.

For the second time in as many summers, the home of the Falcons will play host to an international friendly, this time on July 28, pitting Club América of Mexico against Manchester City of the English Premier League.

It’s formally called the Atlanta International Soccer Challenge, and for a time tickets are a (comparatively) cheap $25 a head. If you wait until late June (with World Cup frenzy heating up) the tickets start at $40.

So welcome, Atlanta, to the expensive international soccer friendly tour.

I only mean that partially tongue-in-cheek, because it’s another audition for Atlanta as a World Cup venue with FIFA due to decide on the 2018 and 2022 events later this year.

On Friday, the U.S. Soccer Federation formally sends its World Cup bid to FIFA on Friday, and that package includes Atlanta not only playing host to games but also to be the site for the World Cup international broadcasting center.

It’s a feature that Gary Stokan, head of the Atlanta bid organizing committee, has been discussing for nearly a year.

Here’s more on the Atlanta bid.

The game features a returnee from last year’s World Football Challenge. Club América, one of the most popular teams in Mexico, will face Manchester City, which has splashed out nearly $300 million in new players since being purchased by an Abu Dhabi conglomerate last year.

Yet City managed to finish only fifth in the Premier League, three points short of earning place in the European Champions League qualifying.

By the time of its American tour, City may well be going through another major makeover. Briefly put, this club is one of the big soap operas of global soccer, and there’s no telling who’s going to make the trip or even take the pitch at the Georgia Dome.

So think about that before you open your wallet.

The idea, of course, is to support spectator soccer in Atlanta, which has had a checkered history of support. Crowds of more than 50,000 turned out for each of the games at the Georgia Dome last year, and a similar draw is likely.

The first big international soccer match in Atlanta also involved Manchester City, which came over to play the Atlanta Chiefs in 1968. That was the last year City won an English top-flight title, while the Chiefs won the inaugural North American Soccer League crown that year.

Over at The Global Game, his most excellent site on soccer and culture, my friend John Turnbull writes about when soccer contagion first hit Atlanta.

May 12, 2010   1 Comment

Some fan impressions of Georgia Dome soccer

More than a few Atlantans and others living in the Southeast made the trip to the Georgia Dome this week for what some admitted was the first time they had seen a soccer match in person in their lives.

A few first-hand accounts:

Finally hooked: “If you’ve ever seen hockey live, then you’ll have somewhat of a feel for what a soccer game with two top clubs feels like.”

Now there’s a sports analogy Southerners can relate to.

Nothing short of magical: “Getting to the seating area opened up a world of passion unlike any I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t experienced a soccer match live, imagine what you see on television only about one hundred times louder and more exhilarating.”

I would imagine the trip back home to Orlando didn’t seem as long as it truly is.

It’s not about the money: “Drive to downtown…$3. Parking at the GA Dome… $10. Small Pizza…$7. Seeing AC Milan lose against Team America… PRICELESS!”

But how much was the ticket?

July 26, 2009   No Comments

Atlanta crowd boosts World Cup ‘image event’

As an announced crowd of 50,306 congregated at the Georgia Dome Wednesday for the World Football Challenge match between AC Milan and Club América, local organizers were hopeful the turnout solidifies Atlanta’s bid to host potential World Cup matches.

Even though any games played here wouldn’t be for nearly another decade at the earliest, time is running short to make a decisive impression. Atlanta and 36 other cities have a July 29 deadline to turn in their bids to the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Atlanta youths bring out the Club America flag before Wednesday's World Football Challenge match at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

Atlanta youths bring out the Club América flag before Wednesday's World Football Challenge match at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

“The bid is pretty much written,” said Scott Moran, a partner with the law firm of Berman Fink Van Horn and president of the Atlanta Fútbol Project, which is spearheading the World Cup effort.

The USSF will narrow down its list of finalist cities to 12 by next spring, when its bids for either the 2018 or 2022 World Cups are due to FIFA. Both of those hosting nations will be announced in December 2010.

Moran said no future games in Atlanta are in the pipeline for the time being. If Atlanta is one of the cities chosen by the USSF for its World Cup bid, further site visits would follow in the coming months.

Also coming away roused by the festivities were the fans in a crowd-pleasing match won by Club América by a 2-1 score. Daniel Marquez headed home the winning goal in the 84th minute.

AC Milan’s Ronaldinho, who was named the man of the match, also wowed the crowd all night. After the game, as both teams departed the Dome, several Club América players asked the Brazilian national team star to pose for pictures. He eagerly obliged, flashing his famous gap-tooth grin. Ronaldinho clearly enjoyed the space and creativity he’s expected to demonstrate following the departure of his countryman Kaká to Real Madrid in a controversial $92 million transfer this summer.

While the crowd cheered on both teams, those behind Club América were constantly on their feet. During an offensive sequence in which AC Milan defenders tried, but failed, to win possession, those supporting the Mexican team chanted: “Olé! Olé! Olé!”

AC Milan's Ronaldinho was the man of the match, but Club America got the win. (photo by David Tulis)

AC Milan's Ronaldinho was the man of the match, but Club América got the win. (photo by David Tulis)

The match was the AC Milan debut for American defender Oguchi Onyewu, who entered at the start of the second half. He was caught flat footed with Club América’s Enrique Escueda powered home a cross from Salvador Cabañas in the 56th minute. Ten minutes later, AC Milan unleashed a quick counterattack, with Mathieu Flamini serving up a sizzling long ball that Filippo Inzaghi finished to draw even at 1-1.

There was a feisty sequence between those goals triggered by AC Milan’s rugged Gennaro Gattuso. The teams had to be separated near midfield, and a few yellow cards were shown. This may have been a preseason friendly for both teams, but the World Football Challenge also is a competitive tournament with a round robin format.

While the winner of that event will be determined over the weekend, Atlanta World Cup organizers will have to wait several agonizing months to learn if their aspirations will go into extra time.

July 22, 2009   1 Comment

Onyewu listed as reserve in AC Milan debut

U.S. national team defender Oguchi Onyewu is listed as an available substitute for tonight’s World Football Challenge match against Club América at the Georgia Dome.

He’ll start the game on the bench with some very good company: Brazilian forward Pato and midfielder Gianluca Zambrotta. Midfielder Andrea Pirlo is not listed on the lineup sheet at all.

AC Milan fans are ready for the World Football Challenge at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

AC Milan fans are ready for the World Football Challenge at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

But AC Milan coach Leonardo is putting some of his big guns in his Starting XI listed below.

Club América has listed Mexican national team veteran Pavel Pardo on the bench to start the game.

The lineups:

Club América: Navarrete; Rodriguez, R. Rojas, Mosquera, Cerda; Silva, Sanchez, Angel, Cabanas; Esqueda, Beausejour.

AC Milan: Storari; Kaladze, Jankulovsky, Favalli, Antonini; Flamini, Gattuso, Seedorf, Ronaldinho; Inzaghi, Zigoni.

About 15 minutes before kickoff, and the Georgia Dome crowd is trickling in rather nicely. Not only does it look like organizers might reach the 50,000 attendance threshold they were hoping for, but the fan split will be more evenly distributed. It could very well be close to 50-50.

Club America fans gather outside the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

Club America fans gather outside the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

And if you’re watching on TV, get ready for the horns: The vuvuzelas are out, they are loud, they are constant and they are everywhere.

July 22, 2009   1 Comment

Live blogging and Tweeting from Georgia Dome

Check back Wednesday night for live updates from the Georgia Dome for all the festivities from the AC Milan-Club América match of the World Football Challenge.

I’ll also be “Tweeting” more frequently. Here’s where you can find Atlanta Soccer News on Twitter.

July 22, 2009   No Comments

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.

July 21, 2009   3 Comments

World Football Challenge kicks off Sunday

Atlanta will have to wait until the middle of the week, but the World Football Challenge gets underway Sunday, with all of the games during the four-team round robin event available on ESPN and ESPN2. Some links to check out as the games begin:

• Here’s a good overview of all four teams — AC Milan, Inter Milan, Club América and Chelsea — with a complete schedule.

• As Atlanta Soccer News reported Saturday, an estimated 26,000 tickets for Wednesday’s match at the Georgia Dome between Club América and AC Milan have been sold. A discount group ticket offer via Georgia Soccer is running through Monday.

• On Sunday Club América will take on reigning Italian Serie A champions Inter Milan in Palo, Alto, Calif., in a match that can be seen at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

• AC Milan also is on the West Coast, but will play the Los Angeles Galaxy Sunday in a friendly at the Home Depot Center. Kickoff is at 10 p.m. ET on the Fox regional sports networks (though I don’t see anything listed locally in Atlanta). Will this really be the emotional clash — with David Beckham as the ubiquitous focal point — that is being hyped?

• The AJC’s Doug Roberson asks a rather audacious question: Does Oguchi Onyewu’s move to AC Milan represent “the most important signing in U.S. soccer history?” Rick Skirvin of Georgia Soccer and Jill Robbins of Atlanta-based Soccer in the Steets talk about what Onyewu’s transfer symbolizes for youth and minority players. A good read, a fresh examination of an issue that’s always prevalent in American soccer player development circles.

• Baltimore has sold out next Friday’s AC Milan-Chelsea match, and the hometown Sun examines the growing popularity of soccer as a spectator sport in the United States.

• But not everybody is thrilled with the World Football Challenge, which is taking place during the middle of the MLS season, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. Are international soccer events on these shores crowding out the American game? Are those fans who like to watch the global elites — some call ’em Eurosnobs — part of the problem?

I’ll reveal where I come down on this subject in the next few days, before Wednesday’s big match in Atlanta.

July 19, 2009   No Comments

AC Milan-Club América ticket sales at 26K

More than 26,000 advance tickets have been sold for Wednesday’s friendly match at the Georgia Dome between AC Milan and Club América, a presell figure that compares to last month’s match in Atlanta between Mexico and Venezuela.

At Saturday’s summer meeting of the Georgia State Soccer Association, president Larry Green said drawing a crowd similar to 51,000-plus that turned out for the June 24 match is critical to bolster Atlanta’s forthcoming World Cup bid.

“Please do all you can to support this event,” Green told a gathering of more than 100 member representatives at a suburban Atlanta hotel. “It’s really important to hit the 50,000 mark. We think the U.S. chances of getting a bid are good, and that Atlanta has a story to tell.”

Atlanta is one of 37 cities vying to be included in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s bid for the World Cup in either 2018 or 2022. The deadline for U.S. venue bids is July 29, and the USSF will narrow down the final field to around a dozen by next May. FIFA will select the host nations for both of the following World Cup cycles in December 2010.

The GSSA has been an active partner with the Atlanta Sports Council in promoting Wednesday’s game in the World Football Challenge, which involves a number of leading European and Mexican club team playing in several U.S. cities. Next Friday’s match between AC Milan and Chelsea in Baltimore, which also is bidding for a World Cup venue, has been sold out.

The GSSA is extending through Monday a discount group ticket plan aimed at organizations, especially youth associations.

The Mexico-Venezuela match was the first soccer match held at the Georgia Dome and was organized by Soccer United Marketing, which puts on an annual summer American tour of the Mexican national team, among other events.

Presale ticket figures released a few days before the game were around 30,000, but walk-up sales were heavy as a largely Mexican-American fan base from around the Southeast came to see El Tricolor play in Atlanta for the first time.

“Some people thought that game might have given the city a black eye because there weren’t local groups involved,” Green said. “But it got more than 51,000 without local organization or publicity.

“There’s no bigger event that we could aspire to be a part of,” Green said, referring to the possibility of Atlanta playing host to World Cup matches.

July 18, 2009   No Comments

Georgia Dome soccer a financial bonanza

Hispanic Market Weekly has an interesting numbers breakdown of last week’s friendly between Mexico and Venezuela, estimating that Soccer United Marketing reeled in around $2.5 million in ticket sales from the first soccer match played at the Georgia Dome.

Local Latino business owners and media entrepreneurs are also buzzing:

“It opened the eyes for this city on how powerful and vast the Hispanic market in Atlanta is.”

My friend David Tulis, who photographed the game for SUM, has offered up a couple of videos from that event. First, a nifty collection of fans and a cool soundtrack:

And he also put together a fun time-lapse video of the Dome preparations, from the laying of the sod four days before the match to rolling it up and out. Rinse and repeat to follow in late July for Club América and AC Milan:

June 29, 2009   No Comments