Breakdown: MLS follows sensible path by setting its sights on Atlanta
MLS invigorated its brand over the past few years by fostering rivalries, identifying committed investors and relying downtown stadiums to create a sense of community.
The formula works. Look at the success across the board in Montréal, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Those markets – bolstered by their lengthy histories with those clubs, of course – support their MLS sides in droves. Other markets with modified circumstances – Philadelphia and Sporting Kansas City carry most of those same characteristics with venues located away from downtown, for example – thrive as well.
Similar principles lurk behind the renewed footprint in the Southeast. Orlando City joins next year with an infrastructure already place after a successful run in the USL and with a downtown stadium on the way. Miami – assuming David Beckham guides his venue project through the local political minefield – looks poised to renew Florida hostilities at some point down the line.
Atlanta fits neatly into this template. The long wait for top-flight soccer in the nation’s ninth-largest metropolitan market likely ends on Wednesday. MLS commissioner Don Garber and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank planned a party and sent the invitations last week. It is just about time to welcome Blank, his new team and the Atlanta market into MLS for a projected 2017 arrival.
The greetings should come with few reservations. Atlanta represents the last top-10 market without a MLS club. It is a bustling, if somewhat transient, metropolis with increasingly favorable demographics, significant corporate activity and a willingness to turn out for high-profile soccer matches. Blank plans to house those special, one-off matches and his new team in a gleaming downtown venue expected to cost in the region of $1.2 billion. The projected 65,000-seat facility isn’t a soccer-specific home, but the football stadium will turn into a fútbol ground with the help of the same technology used at B.C. Place.
It isn’t ideal to introduce another expansive venue into the league, but there are no perfect solutions left in the expansion field. Atlanta comes closest to meeting the standard. The new club boasts seasoned investors, controls its revenue streams in a team-operated stadium and rounds out the efforts to return to the Southeast. Not even the inevitable concerns about attendance and depth of support mitigate the positives to any great extent given the business advantages in play.
MLS enters this market in a far stronger place now than it might have in the past. The current state of affairs provides some latitude. The league does not need Atlanta to transform into the next Seattle (or any of the 6-10 other models one could cite instead of Sounders FC) to make the decision worthwhile. It simply needs this new club to comprise a solid member of its projected 24-team league by 2020, a group consisting of a variety of teams in various predicaments.
Atlanta – with its downtown stadium, its potential rivals in Orlando and Miami and its solid financial footing – certainly satisfies the criteria within that context and slides into a comfortable spot in the pecking order. There are no guarantees of success, but this move represents a logical next step for the league as it continues to plot for further growth.
Five Points – Week 6
1. San Jose captured the sentiments of an entire league on Sunday: MLS commissioner Don Garber announced he requires treatment for prostate cancer on Saturday afternoon. This banner turned up in front of the 1906 Ultras at Buck Shaw Stadium during San Jose’s 1-1 draw with Columbus on Sunday afternoon:
2. Switching places, taking chances: Jack McInerney and Andrew Wenger marked their debuts with goals designed to reinforce their best characteristics and underscore their utility to their new sides. McInerney dashed clear from a clever Marco Di Vaio flick to force home in Montréal's 1-1 draw with Chicago. Wenger floated away to provide Vincent Nogueira with an ideal target for his diagonal and tucked home the first equalizer in the crazy 2-2 draw with Real Salt Lake. More of the same in the coming weeks will vindicate the decision to make this trade on both accounts.
3. RSL is the last of the unbeatens: Jeff Cassar’s side shipped a late (and wonderful) Maurice Edu header to settle for a point at PPL Park, but the Claret-and-Cobalt ended the weekend as the league’s only unbeaten after Clint Dempsey’s late winner in Frisco dealt FC Dallas its first loss. RSL’s continued success comes as no surprise: this group continues to blend its deft work in possession with a steely core. The buildup to the second goal against the Union – a combination of grit and tidiness to yield Kyle Beckerman’s slotted finish – just about sums up the season to date.
4. Clint Dempsey, man in form: Dempsey increased his haul to five goals over two matches with a double in Seattle’s 3-2 victory at FC Dallas on Saturday. His first effort – a dipping free kick off the underside of the bar – highlighted the depth of his resurgence over the past couple of weeks:
5. Is it time for New York and Portland to worry?: New York muddled through a frustrating affair against D.C. United by squandering a plethora of chances and tumbling to a 1-0 defeat at RFK Stadium. Thierry Henry expressed confidence in the wake of the performance, but the Red Bulls need to rediscover the ruthlessness deployed for much of last season to gain the proper rewards for useful approach play. Portland settled for a 1-1 draw with Chivas USA (much, much improved from the awful 3-0 defeat to LA Galaxy on Sunday) after permitting Erick Torres to slot home unmarked from six yards. The defensive problems highlighted on the play – Alvas Powell shining a bright light on the protracted selection issues at right back with his one-versus-one defending, Pa Modou Kah shutting off for a moment to allow Torres to ghost free – marred a performance Caleb Porter lauded after the fact. Both teams possess the talent to recover from their indifferent starts, but they must start the process sooner rather than later to ensure the deficit does not expand to untenable levels.