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

Could Clark, Donovan join Onyewu in Italy?

Newly promoted Serie A club Livorno reportedly is pursuing both Landon Donovan and Atlanta’s Ricardo Clark as U.S. national team members are clearly drawing more attention following their showing at the Confederations Cup.

Livorno already has admitted that the transfer fee set by Major League Soccer is too high, and that “the only solution could be that some sponsors could invest to bring the player to the Italian Serie A,” most likely during the next transfer window in January 2010.

Both Donovan and Clark share the same American soccer agent Richard Motzkin, who confirmed the pursuit of his clients by Livorno but declined to elaborate. Clark’s contract with the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer expires at the end of the current season. He’s also been named in connection with a move to French first division club Rennes.

U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu is set to make his AC Milan debut tonight at the Georgia Dome in the World Football Challenge. He is only the second American to play in Italy’s top league and the first since Alexi Lalas played for Padova from 1994-96.

Livorno’s purported interest in Donovan was first divulged earlier this week. The Los Angeles Galaxy and American standout forward has been in the spotlight recently because of his pointed comments directed at David Beckham.

Soccer Milan America

Oguchi Onyewu (right) in his first practice with AC Milan Tuesday at the Georgia Dome. (photo by David Tulis)

At his introductory press conference Tuesday at the Dome, Onyewu said of Donovan that “his ability can surpass MLS . . . he can play in a bigger league in Europe. I think that would be good for him.” Donovan has had brief spells with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich of the German Bundesliga.

Clark, the former AFC Lightning Club and St. Pius X midfielder, was called into the U.S. camp before the Confederations Cup because of a rash of injuries at that position. He received a red card in the opener against Italy but returned to particpate in the Americans’ improbable run to the finals, where they lost to Brazil after taking a 2-0 lead.

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

Never a dull moment for AC Milan

Before heading on its American summer tour that stops in Atlanta on July 22, AC Milan is getting in some training time back home. But it’s been hardly a subdued return to the pitch.

Players were greeted by fans throwing smoke bombs and firecrackers Monday as they got in their first stretching and kicking of the preseason.

The fans weren’t mad at the players who were in attendance, but at club management for selling Brazilian midfielder Kaká to Real Madrid.

The subject of their ire, owner Silvio Berlusconi, was nowhere to be found. And as Italy’s prime minister, he’s got problems of his own, embroiled in a sex scandal (yes, in even in Italy now!) as he prepeares to host the G-8 summit this week.

AC-MilanAC Milan, which plays Mexico’s Club América at the Georgia Dome, is deep in debt, but Berlusconi remains his typical blustery self about the quality of his club, which has seen crosstown rival Inter Milan claim the last four Serie A championships.

First-year coach Leonardo, who takes over from new Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti, has named club and Italian World Cup veteran Massimo Ambrosini to take over as captain for the retired Paolo Maldini.

In one of his first public comments in his new role, Ambrosini stated that he thought AC Milan “rushed” its sale of Kaká and furthermore, doubts that Ronaldinho, who had a limited role in his first season, is up to sharing the burden.

Well, how’s that for starting off on the same page? And it’s anyone’s guess who will be on the roster of Italy’s most popular club when it arrives here in two weeks.

There are all kinds of transfer rumors kicking about in terms of who might be joining and leaving the rossoneri during the July window, but one player thought to be looking elsewhere, midfielder Andrea Pirlo, says he wants to stay put.

Updated, July 7: Well hells bells! AC Milan has gone and signed U.S. central defender Oguchi Onyewu, whose name was connected to virtually every team from Real Madrid to Fenerbahçe to Genoa to Ajax to Fulham to Birmingham City, among others. The 27-year-old former Clemson star was sparkling for the Americans at the Confederations Cup, boosting his stock after his contract expired at Belgian champion Standard Liège. But even though he was a free transfer, Milan thinks enough of him to have done a three-year contract.

“Gooch” becomes only the second American to play in Serie A after Alexi Lalas parlayed his 1994 World Cup stardom into a two-year gig for Padova. Says Lalas:

“The pressure will be more because he’s an American than the fact that he’s playing at AC Milan. . . .

“Most Italian clubs have at least one big forward, an Ibrahimovic, a Iaquinta, or whoever, and I think he’ll match up very well against those big forwards that a lot of these teams have. As a matter of fact, I think he’ll gobble them up.”

The timing of the Georgia Dome match coincides with the end of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, but Onyewu was not called into the American camp for that tournament.

Tickets for the AC Milan-Club América match are on sale, and the Georgia State Soccer Association is selling discounted tickets ranging from $23.75 to $118.75 per person. There also are special group rates that includes free admission to a July 21 practice session for the teams at the Dome.

Like a few other European club teams, AC Milan isn’t limiting its presence in North America to elite international friendlies. The club just completed a week’s camp at North Atlanta Soccer Association.

July 6, 2009   1 Comment