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

Fans wanting MLS in Atlanta keep the faith

They’ve got the makings of a Web site and a Facebook page that’s up and running, with nearly 200 fellow travelers having signed up thus far. If you want to pledge allegiance to their cause, you can even buy a T-shirt (right, below) that leaves little doubt as to what you want. And by all means, don’t hesitate to Tweet them up.

Just be prepared to wait a while for your dreams to come true.

Getting all shirty over MLS in Atlanta.

Getting all shirty over MLS in Atlanta.

Despite the euphoria over two well-attended matches at the Georgia Dome this summer and Atlanta’s bid as a potential World Cup venue, the city remains an elusive blip on the radar of Major League Soccer, as it has for most of the league’s 13-year history.

After withdrawing his bid for a Major League Soccer franchise in December, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has placed any future aspirations to apply again in a holding pattern due to the sour economy. But a fledgling band of fans is forging ahead anyway, drumming up grassroots support for what they hope will be an eventual MLS presence in Atlanta.

They call themselves B.O.S.S. — the Brotherhood of Southern Soccer. They’ve fashioned their efforts after a fan group in Philadelphia, Sons of Ben, which launched an MLS crusade a few years ago. The honorific is for Ben Franklin, and next year those SoBs — that really is how they call themselves – will have a team to cheer for, as the Philadelphia Union joins MLS as an expansion franchise.

A number of B.O.S.S. aficionadoes Tweeted and took pictures from the Dome last week, proclaiming the city ready for big-time soccer on a regular basis:

“Official attendance at Georgia Dome: 50,306. In Atlanta. On a Wednesday night. In late July. Who says the south can’t support soccer??”

One of the driving forces behind B.O.S.S. believes the Dome exhibitions were exactly what Atlanta needed to make its case.

“We’ve never had the chance to show the rest of the country what was there, what the potential has been in Atlanta,” said Will Clearman, a former Woodstock High and Mercer University soccer player, who is now a naval engineer in Washington, D.C. “We never had a place to play big international games until now. Now there’s a serious chance of something happening.”

Soccer fans from all over the Southeast turned out to see Mexico. Would they do the same for an MLS team? (photo by David Tulis)

Soccer fans from all over the Southeast turned out to see Mexico. Would they do the same for an MLS team? (photo by David Tulis)

At least the prospects for MLS are stronger than they’ve been, especially with local ownership interest having surfaced. But significant roadblocks remain, even though the league has always had Atlanta in mind.

“MLS would like to have a presence in the Southeast and Atlanta is a large international city that is headquarters to major global corporations such as Coca-Cola and The Home Depot,” MLS vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche replied in an e-mail. “We also believe Atlanta is a strong soccer market and think an MLS team would appeal to the growing international population in Georgia.”

But . . . and the same “but” still applies:

“Atlanta’s biggest challenge for landing a future expansion team is that it currently does not have an appropriate venue for an MLS team,” Courtemanche added.

In 2000 there was a local effort to create something called the Atlanta Soccer Village, with an MLS-specific stadium as its centerpiece. But that idea never went anywhere. Neither did a last-ditch effort to save the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for soccer use. The Atlanta Silverbacks, who have suspended participation in the United Soccer Leagues (a notch below MLS), several years ago built the shell of what might have been an MLS-standard stadium near the 285/85 intersection. But the location and lack of parking are among its drawbacks, and the future of that organization is uncertain.

So here we go again.

The facility issue could be solved if Blank ever builds a new Falcons stadium that he has envisioned as a public/private collaboration, with the most likely site at the former General Motors plant in Doraville.

That’s a very big “if” because the recession that Blank cited for scotching his initial application to MLS looms even larger now, especially with pace of the recovery in question.

“What it boils down to is the economic environment at this time,” said Kim Shreckengost, the executive vice president and chief of staff of AMB Group LLC, the parent company of the Falcons. “It’s not appropriate for us to pursue that now.”

Plenty of obstacles remain for MLS to come to Atlanta. (photo by David Tulis)

Plenty of obstacles remain for MLS to come to Atlanta. (photo by David Tulis)

The MLS bid grew out of what Shreckengost said was a result of long-term strategic planning several years ago as AMB was “looking at growth opportunities” both in the sports realm and for further civic engagement.

Even after Blank withdrew his MLS bid, the Falcons organization helped promote both matches at the Dome, and it is represented on Atlanta’s World Cup bid committee. But Shreckengost said she could not indicate definitively when Blank may make another MLS bid: “I can’t until there is a clearer [economic] picture.”

MLS, which is in the process of adding four teams to grow to 18 by the start of the 2011 season, hasn’t stipulated when, and how many, teams might follow after that. There has been some speculation that the league could grow to 20 teams by 2012 or 2013. The owner of the USL’s Montreal Impact has been indicating publicly that his team will be admitted to MLS.

Watching from afar is Clearman, whose fan days here go back to attending Ruckus games in the mid-1990s and who remains convinced that Atlanta is an MLS-worthy market. He cites the packed crowds that frequently watch English and international matches at soccer watering holes like the Brewhouse Café in Little Five Points. Even as a Georgia Tech graduate student, he’d get up early on the weekends to get a good seat.

But does that signify enough interest in MLS?

“That’s how some people used to talk about Toronto, that those people were nothing but Eurosnobs,” Clearman responded.

The Canadian city that also drew paltry crowds for its former USL team is now an MLS hotbed, with Toronto FC games at its 20,000-seat home venue frequently sold out. “If that can happen there, I think it can happen in Atlanta too.”

However another MLS bid might proceed, Clearman advises those striving to bring a team to Atlanta to work closely with its fan base.

“If they’re serious, then there’s a lot they can gain from the people who support them.”

July 29, 2009   3 Comments

Somebody who remembers the Atlanta Chiefs

My former AJC colleague (and soccer aficionado) Mark Bradley wrote yesterday about the unusual and respectable across-the-board showing of Atlanta pro sports teams and how this might mean (jokingly) that “I might not have a job much longer.”

If a sports columnist doesn’t have a bad team to rip, what’s he good for?

Tucked away among the reader rants about Bobby Cox, Georgia Tech football, et al, was this reminder from a soul with the online handle of “All I’m Saying Is . . .:”

“No one paid any attention to the one championship team we did have which was the Atlanta Chiefs of the North American Soccer League.”

That was the extent of the comment. In 1968, the first year of the NASL, the league crowned the Atlanta Chiefs, coached by Phil Woosnam, who later became the NASL commissioner. It would be nearly three decades before the Atlanta Braves won their only World Series title.

From, courtesy of Phil Woosnam

From, courtesy of Phil Woosnam

I just saw Phil a couple weeks ago at the Atlanta Beat announcement. After living many years in New York, he returned to Atlanta to marshal the Olympic soccer venue in Athens and now resides in Marietta. He provided the photo to the right of the victorious Chiefs for the Georgia Encyclopedia.

He probably didn’t see this comment on Bradley’s blog, but I’m sure if he had, it would have brought that wry Welsh smile to his face.

Last fall Decatur resident John Turnbull penned this piece on Chiefs star Ron Newman, who had a long coaching career in the United States, including with the Kansas City Wizards at the birth of Major League Soccer.

One of the key members of that Chiefs title team, Kaizer Motaung, returned to his native South Africa in 1970 and founded the Kaizer Chiefs, one of the most popular clubs in the country that will play host to next year’s World Cup. He’s still in charge of the club, which is based in Soweto.

He’s been gone from Atlanta for a long time, as have the Chiefs, but the rich memories live on.

July 9, 2009   7 Comments

A tempered second act for women’s pro soccer

The New York Times takes an expansive look at the first season of Women’s Professional Soccer, mentioning Atlanta coming aboard (along with Philadelphia) next season.

Interesting comments from a Boston Breakers executive in charge of business development on how the league is trying to go beyond what was emphasized during the Women’s United Soccer Association, and an approach that is familiar in women’s pro and college team sports in general:

“We need to get out of the ghetto of being a role model for girls. You can’t make dads feel like they’re visiting Chuck E. Cheese’s.”

Clearly the fan base for women’s soccer will always be families with young children, but the sport, and the league, is being marketed to a broader base of fans at the same time. The key is making it feel like a sporting event for all fans, and not just a kiddie jamboree for some. Says Doug Logan, the first commissioner of Major League Soccer, in the same story:

“Success at the gate has to have a tribal following and not just a van of soccer-playing kids who come to one game a year. If your business model depends on youth soccer, it won’t be enough.”

Tens years (to the week) after the phenomenal event that was the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the growing pains of women’s soccer have entered a new stage.

WUSA and U.S. national team veterans are wizened from their experiences, including former Beat goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who along with former Atlanta teammate Homare Sawa is playing for the Washington Freedom of WPS:

“The fact that we’re out here, playing soccer, is what’s important. To go from nothing to something is amazing. You rarely get a second chance in life, and we’re getting one now.

“We need to make the most of it.”

July 8, 2009   No Comments

Drawing a Beat on soccer in Kennesaw

The frequent speculation about the creation of a major soccer complex at Kennesaw State University is quickly turning into a reality.

The $20 million proposal calls for a cluster of facilities, including an 8,500-seat stadium that is the likely home for the newly revived Atlanta Beat, as well as additional fields.

On Tuesday the Cobb Planning Commission took up a rezoning request that will get the formal process started.

And it gave approval as easy as a penalty kick; the Cobb Board of Commissioners is expected to act on July 21.

Yet Beat owner Fitz Johnson remains shy about saying specifically where in Cobb he wants to locate his new Women’s Professional Soccer franchise.

C’mon, Fitz!

July 7, 2009   3 Comments

Check out these good soccer reads

In addition to writing about the Atlanta soccer scene here, I round up and comment on news and views from the world of soccer on Beyond The Touchline. I’ve included the latest posts from that site on the sidebar here on Atlanta Soccer News.

Here’s what I wrote today about an amazing summer for American soccer fans — and how it’s just getting warmed up. There’s also a roundup of latest transfer news and its implications for soccer economics and finance, the travails of Bobby Convey and Landon Donovan’s harsh assessment of David Beckham’s impact on the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer.

Enjoy these links, and I’ll be back next week with fresh news about the latest soccer developments in the Atlanta area.

Happy Independence Day!

July 4, 2009   No Comments

What’s different about this moment for U.S. soccer

When the U.S. soccer team reached the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, I experienced first-hand some good cheer from a most unlikely source: The dean of a generally sour British press corps.

The same bitter lot whose reigning “sportswriter of the year” later dubbed the final match between Brazil and Germany as The Boys from Ipanema vs. the 22nd Waffen SS Panzer Division. Or something like that. And this was penned in one of the “quality” broadsheet papers, not a tabloid.

I met World Soccer magazine columnist and veteran soccer journalist Brian Glanville at the media center in Seoul the day after the Americans’ scintillating second-round win over Mexico. Groggy from a lack of sleep on a midnight train from Jeonju (they should write a song about that!), I was unprepared to shake hands with someone I had read for a number of years and regarded as a world-class curmudgeon. In a good way.

So when Glanville said to me upon our introduction, “It’s fantastic, the States doing that,” I did a double take. He wasn’t being facetious in the least. It was genuine admiration for what a soccer minnow had accomplished on the biggest stage of the sport, with literally the whole world watching. The way the Americans played in losing to Germany in the quarterfinals was even more impressive. Without Oliver Kahn in the nets, that imaginary arm coming out of Gregg Berhalter’s forehead and Torsten Frings’ impression of the Venus de Milo, Rudi Völler’s boys might have been busted down to regular Wehrmacht.

Up until that moment, the Yanks had generated more headlines for the heavy security detail that followed the team everywhere just a few months removed from Sept. 11. And for the team’s visit to the DMZ. It was refreshing to write about what the U.S. was doing on the field, and not the larger context of Americans in the world in the newly-coined Age of Terror.

That run for the U.S. in Korea was eventually regarded as a fluke, given the disastrous World Cup cycle that ended in three-and-out ignominy in Germany.

But looking back on that time now, in the wake of the shocking U.S. upset of Spain in the Confederations Cup semifinals, I’m not so sure. Perhaps what has worked against the Americans’ efforts to develop on a consistent basis is timing and alternating levels of expectations.

In recent years, the U.S. seems to have played better with the pressure off. In 1994, the Americans did respectably well under the duress of being hosts, getting to the second round before falling to Brazil. In 1998, with aspirations of matching that performance, they fell flat, finishing dead last among the 32 teams in France. When Bruce Arena took his team to Korea, we weren’t expecting much, again, but a win over Portugal and a draw with the co-hosts South Korea had the U.S. on the verge of advancing. That it lost the only game it was expected to win, the group finale against Poland, was telling.

Going into Germany, the American public had been told that budding young stars like Landon Donovan and experienced hands like Kasey Keller in goal comprised the best U.S. team ever put together. Aside from that bizarre draw against eventual champion Italy, there wasn’t much to back that up.

Now we have a U.S. team that a little more than a week ago was being savaged by the tiny American soccer press contingent. There were plenty of calls for the head of coach Bob Bradley. The style of play and player development that is unique to the States was once again called into question. Also facing the heat were players like Donovan, who at times has shrunk in big games, and Atlanta’s own Ricardo Clark, whose red card in the opening loss to Italy set the tone for what appeared to be another miserable FIFA tournament. After the 3-0 drubbing by Brazil, American soccer bloggers howled in humiliation. Surely this coach can’t go on, and this team must be broken up.

That same coach, and those same players, were pitted in the finals against the new Boys from Ipanema again. After stunning the five-time World Cup winners by taking an early 2-0 lead, the U.S. could not withstand the barrage and fell 3-2. It was still the best finish ever for the Americans in an official FIFA event.

The most impressive aspect of the U.S. win over Spain was that it was so comprehensive, from first to final whistle, from one end of the field to another. There was no fluke here, no fortuitous own goal or late penalty kick to sink the Spanish Armada. It was the Americans taking out the talented Xavi Hernandez, in my mind the best midfielder in the world right now, from his playmaking role. It was stranding the prolific David Villa and Fernando Torres as a result. It was bagging two goals past the fabulous Iker Casillas, who hadn’t conceded even one.

It was a dominant performance, even as Spain peppered Tim Howard’s goal. Donovan has been an absolute lion out there. The central defense has been superb. Jozy Altidore is showing just a glimpse of his marvelous potential. Yet they haven’t gone into convulsions about it, which is a healthy sign. Clark’s perspective strikes a nice balance.

This showing also comes less than a year before the World Cup in South Africa, which means there will be greater attention placed on the U.S. than ever before. There’s still work done to get there, and how the Americans play in the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup ought to be scrutinized just as intensely as the Confederations Cup.

So should their massive qualifier at Mexico on Aug 12. Right after Mexico had defeated Venezuela in a Wednesday friendly at the Georgia Dome, Mexico coach Javier Aguirre was asked about the U.S.-Spain match earlier that day. He and his El Tricolor were watching intently as their continental nemesis scored one of the biggest upsets of recent international soccer history. Mexico is fighting like hell to finish in the top three of CONCACAF qualifying and avoid a playoff against a South American team. They understand very clearly how the stakes have been heightened by what happened in Bloemfontein.

More importantly, the Americans are making the rest of soccer world take notice as World Cup qualifying hits its climax all over the planet. This is what’s different about the place the U.S. finds itself in. The Yanks won’t be able to vanish into a post-World Cup lull for a year or three, until the next World Cup reveals them. They’ve revealed all of themselves in South Africa, the good and the ugly, at one of the most critical stages a team can draw back the curtain.

There are permanently raised expectations now for U.S. soccer, and that’s a very good thing.

June 28, 2009   1 Comment