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

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

Soccer links for your weekend reading pleasure

I’ve posted some new items over at Beyond The Touchline as another extremely busy week of soccer in America comes to a close:

• The CONCACAF Gold Cup and the World Football Challenge both reach their culminations this weekend. Are events like these overloading an already gluttonous soccer schedule on these shores? One leading American soccer writer, who really, really loves the game, thinks so.

Soccer fans in Atlanta and Baltimore who have been starved for these events to come to our cities may beg to differ.

• Is an American soccer TV star in the making? I’ve linked to a profile of Fox Soccer Channel’s Christopher Sullivan, who’s truly a worldly observer of the game. If you’ve wondered about the source of his distinctive speaking style, you’re in for an interesting surprise.

• And finally, I round up the David Beckham brouhaha by posing this suggestion — and I’m not quite sure of the answer yet — maybe “The Beckham Experiment” is working after all. In some very unexpected ways.

Visit Beyond The Touchline for more on these stories and the game of soccer around the world.

July 25, 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   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

Deadline nears for AC Milan-Club América discount tickets

Discounted tickets for next Wednesday’s Georgia Dome friendly between AC Milan and Club América will be available only through today on the Georgia State Soccer Association Web site.

The tickets are priced from $23.75 to $118.75 per person, an average of a 5 percent savings. Each discounted group ticket comes with free admission to practice sessions the day before the game.

Here’s more information on ordering tickets.

AC Milan’s World Football Challenge match scheduled for two days later, on Friday, July 24 against Chelsea in Baltimore, has already been sold out.

July 14, 2009   5 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   No Comments

Atlanta joins America’s ‘summer of soccer’

For most of the last century, European club teams have been spending part of their off-seasons in North America, earning extra income, getting players into shape and enjoying a respite from intensified media and public attention that often overwhelms at home.

So when Major League Soccer announced this week the coming months would be the “most prolific Summer of Soccer ever,” this claim needs to be taken with a few historical grains of salt. And it deserves a bit of an explanation.

Surely MLS isn’t exaggerating one thing: In terms of marketing and promoting the presence of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, AC Milan, the Mexican national team, etc., this is an unprecedented slate of highly coordinated events that illustrate a growing demand for high-profile spectator soccer in this country and Canada. A total of 101 games, starting today with the SuperLiga series between MLS and the Mexican Primera, will be played over the next 51 days.

Soccer United Marketing, an arm of Major League Soccer, is putting on Wednesday’s international friendly at the Georgia Dome between Mexico and Venezuela. Such legends of El Tricolor as Luis Hernandez, Carlos Hermosillo and Alberto Garcia Aspe will be in town before then to make appearances in various pockets of metro Atlanta’s sizable Mexican-American community.

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Is Atlanta ready for some fútbol?

The Georgia State Soccer Association, which helping promote the game, announced on Friday that tickets for upper level seating at the Dome have gone on sale. More than 30,000 tickets, comprising the lower bowl, have already been sold. On Saturday, real grass was laid down at the Georgia Dome.

Next month, that same demographic is the obvious target of a club friendly, also at the Dome, between Mexico’s Club América and AC Milan. This is clearly the biggest ethnic soccer market in Atlanta, as it is in many U.S. cities, and turnout for these games will go a long way toward determining Atlanta’s viability as a destination for future spectator soccer events.

The timing of these two games couldn’t be more important for Atlanta’s bid to become a potential World Cup venue. The U.S. Soccer Federation, which is bidding for either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup, has put the Dome on its list of 45 venues in 37 cities for consideration and is requesting more detailed proposals to meet FIFA hosting specifications.

Atlanta Sports Council president Gary Stokan told me this week his group has little more than a month — July 29 — to provide that information and sharpen its pitch. That’s the sort of thing Atlanta’s been known for in bringing major sporting events to Atlanta — the Summer Olympics, Super Bowl, Final Four, SEC and ACC championships, etc. Stokan, who worked for Adidas during the days of the North American Soccer League, has for quite a while wanted to add soccer to the city’s inventory of big events. In a sense, it’s the final missing link.

But the World Cup — this is pretty heady stuff. It’s a different international animal than the Olympics, which depends on the largesse of both the American media establishment and corporate sponsorship. FIFA certainly depends on the latter, but its political culture is hardly dependent on the American way of doing things. To illustrate that, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter this week urged MLS to consider switching its seasons from the summer if it wants to attract the “next Beckham” to these shores.

Setting aside the fact that the Beckham experiment has been a dismal failure, that one of the top professional leagues in North America gets a public upbraiding like that from the most powerful man in the sport shouldn’t sit well with American soccer organizers and marketers. MLS commissioner Don Garber couldn’t really offer much of a response except to talk about new soccer-specific stadiums being constructed.

Blatter’s hot air, as usual, is nonsensical and misplaced when it comes to assessing the reality of the game on this continent. He understands fully the limited salary structure of MLS that pales in comparison to, say, Kaká’s transfer fee to Real Madrid. But that’s a topic for another time.

The fact that Atlanta has been added to the “Summer of Soccer” tour is the first phase in putting the city on America’s soccer map. That’s no small accomplishment in a city where spectator sports in general, much less soccer, have a history of inconsistent support.

Garber will be in town this week to talk about MLS expansion in the wake of a recent bid by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. He abandoned that bid, but his vice president of marketing, Jim Smith, is a former general manager of the MLS Columbus Crew. There now is a resident point man here well-versed in the league and who is learning this sports market and what might be possible.

So for the first time, major players in Atlanta’s sports scene are interested in MLS, even though having a team here is a long-term prospect at the very least. But in a city currently without any professional soccer, Atlanta is at last taking some baby steps toward becoming a serious soccer destination.

June 20, 2009   1 Comment