Arthur Blank

Atlanta, MLS don’t need to quiet doubts to be successful in the Southeast

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Major League Soccer’s worst kept secret was its interest in Atlanta. As Don Garber’s reflex response goes, the league has been interested in the city for over a decade. Not only does it give MLS a coveted spot in the abandoned Southeast, but it represents a location that hasn’t failed before. Going into Florida? There’s a history there. In Atlanta, MLS can write its own.

Miami may be the capital of Latin America, but Atlanta is the center of the South. If MLS is going to go challenge the notion that professional soccer can’t gain a foothold in the region, it has to succeed in ‘The ATL’ – a focal point that can promote the sector’s link to the rest of the country. Without it, the two Florida franchises (Orlando and David Beckham’s eventual team in Miami) are left on an island, one that could sink once more.

It’s an endeavor that stares skeptics’ two main assumptions in the face – notions that also apply to the potential Miami franchise: First, that the cities are not a “good sports towns”; and second, MLS’s history says it can not succeed in the Southeast.

The funny part about the first it that there’s no clear standard for evaluating what is and is not a good sports town. And whatever standards you do hear? They’re probably completely inapplicable to Major League Soccer.

Critics will point out there’s a lack of excitement for the Dolphins and Marlins in Miami, the Hawks and Braves in Atlanta, but it’s not as if those teams are going out of business. Even the Marlins, at this point, are a well-established part of their city’s landscape. By Major League Soccer standards, those franchises are outrageous successes. If Miami and Atlanta are bad sports towns, it’s only relative to a lofty, irrelevant standard that shouldn’t apply to MLS.

Plus, as Blank alluded to in today’s press conference, the extent to which you can look at a football, basketball, or baseball franchise and see MLS’s future is a dubious one. According to the new MLS owner (citing information relayed to him by Seattle’s ownership), only three percent of Sounders season ticket holders do the same with the Seahawks. If you’re looking to NFL-ledd MLS teams as a means of evaluating Atlanta’s potential, here’s actually very little overlap between NFL customers and potential soccer supporters. As we’ve known for some time, soccer fans are a distinct type of customer, one that’s more likely to be reached with a distinct approach.

Perhaps paradoxically, that’s where Blank’s NFL organization can help. As those around Seattle recently noted as the Sounders severed business ties with the Seahawks, being linked to a huge, established organization likely helped the Sounders’ unprecedented growth. It gave the franchise a large machine capable of leveraging its experience in a way that took advantage of any opportunity for growth. Given the Falcons’ presence in Atlanta, Blank may be able to do the same.

Does that make Atlanta a good sport market? No, but it’s also unclear what a good sports market is. If having franchises like the Braves and Dolphins mean a city doest care about sports, maybe we’re too idealistic about what represents success in this realm. And if the doubters’ argument is that places like Salt Lake, Columbus, Santa Clara, Portland — small cities where MLS is already successful — represent better opportunities than the city with the 15th largest economy in the world, the standard is broken. MLS doesn’t need to win over the whole town. A small slice of the pie will work.

Critics, however, are also skeptical of MLS’s ability to penetrate the market, usually citing the region’s sports culture and MLS’s previous failures as reason to believe another Southeast excursion will fail. But if there’s one thing we know about Major League Soccer, it’s that the league is nothing like it was in 2001. Pointing to anything the league did at age six as an example of what it’s capable of at age 19 ignores the league’s trajectory.

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The Miami Fusion ceased operations in 2001, but a group led by David Beckham are hoping to secure a stadium that will allow a new team to play by 2017, the same year Atlanta will come into Major League Soccer.

By now, MLS is a totally different organism. It’s bigger and far more stable that it was in 2001, when a small group of owners were faced with the task to keeping the two Florida franchises afloat. MLS, struggling for its mere survival, didn’t have the resources back then. Overly reliant on Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt, the league couldn’t wait out teams’ slow starts.

But now, with the resources people like Blank, Beckham, and Manchester City’s ownership can throw behind new franchises, there’s no reason to expect those slow starts. Instead, these teams will try to hit the ground running, if not on the field than off. If they hit speed bumps, a large group of diverse owners can leverage to decades of lessons to promote the teams’ survival.

That’s not to say Atlanta, Miami, Orlando … New York or franchise no. 24 will succeed. Instead, it’s important to realize the league’s 1996-2001 track record is irrelevant. Different owners with different goals had different tools, none of which will be used in the MLS’s latest attempt to tackle the Southeast. Instead, a sport that’s made significant gains in national relevance over the last 13 years will take another shot, with new minds and new capabilities leading the charge.

If soccer in the Southeast fails, it won’t be for the same reasons Tampa Bay and Miami. And it probably won’t be because Atlanta and the Magic City aren’t Good Sports Towns. Major League Soccer doesn’t necessarily need GSTs to succeed.

It needs good owners. It needs people who have ideas that can help franchises identify that sliver of local support that will sustain the team. It needs a growing game and a vibrant league to give the teams a bigger, more relevant context. Right now, it just needs 20,000-or-so people to want to come to games.

It doesn’t need to make people forget the Mutiny and Fusion, and it doesn’t need to prove Atlanta and Miami are GSTs. All MLS needs to capture each city’s underserved soccer market. Even if that doesn’t push the Heat or Falcons on the back burner, it will be enough to allow address those doubts.

Klinsmann names USMNT preliminary roster for 2016 Copa America

United States Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann instructs his team against Guatemala during the first half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match Tuesday, March 29, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. The United States beat Guatemala 4-0. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
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Youth is well served as Jurgen Klinsmann has named the U.S. national team’s 40-man preliminary roster ahead of next month’s 2016 Copa America Centenario.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Youngsters Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe, Matt Miazga and Jordan Morris, along with 36 others, will take part in the USMNT’s pre-tournament training camp, beginning May 16 in Miami, Fla., as Klinsmann makes his final decisions in order to trim the squad from 40 to 23 before the May 20 roster deadline.

Along with the aforementioned newcomers (relative so) is most of the regular cast of characters from Klinsmann’s nearly six years in charge — Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Fabian Johnson, Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud, among others.

[ MORE: Dortmund’s Pulisic scores in second consecutive Bundesliga game ]

The USMNT will play three warm-up games ahead of their group-stage opener (June 3, vs. Colombia in Santa Clara, Calif.): at Puerto Rico (May 22), vs. Ecuador (May 25 in Frisco, Tex.) and vs. Bolivia (May 28 in Kansas City, Kan.).

The full preliminary roster is as follows…

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Ethan Horvath (Molde) Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Ventura Alvarado (Club America), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Monterrey), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Michael Orozco (Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland)

Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Perry Kitchen (Hearts), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew SC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund),Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

MLS Snapshot: Portland Timbers 2-1 Toronto FC (video)

Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri (8), celebrates his equalizer goal in extra time against Los Angeles Galaxy, Sunday May 11, 2014, at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon.  (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Thomas Boyd)  MAGS OUT; TV OUT; LOCAL TV OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; THE MERCURY OUT; WILLAMETTE WEEK OUT; PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP OUT
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The game in 100 words (or less): The defending champion Portland Timbers are slowly but surely hitting their stride after a less-than-ideal start to the season saw Caleb Porter’s side start their 2015 MLS Cup title defense with just one win in their first six games. With Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Toronto FC, the Timbers are now three games unbeaten (two wins), and quickly ascending the Western Conference standings (started the day in 9th, finished the day in 7th). Just a heads up: Diego Valeri is still the best (24 goals, 38 assists in 94 MLS appearances). Also, backup goalkeeper Jake Gleeson turned in one of the best goalkeeping performances in recent memory, with no fewer than three jaw-dropping saves in the second half alone. As for TFC, their eight-game road trip to start the season is, mercifully, finished. They’ll head back to BMO Field for next Saturday’s home opener with 11 points in the bag and a claim on the no. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Adi takes the feed from Valeri, makes it 1-0 — Diego Valeri to Fanendo Adi [insert any Timbers forward here] has been a thoroughly productive formula for the Timbers since his arrival in the Rose City four years ago. Big props to Darren Mattocks with the ball to put Valeri into all that space.

40′ — Johnson keeps it low, makes it 1-1 — Sebastian Giovinco attracted the attention of four Timbers defenders, none of which were quick to pounce on the loose ball after the Italian went down under a crunching challenge. Will Johnson was quickest to the ball, and equalized against his former club.

74′ — Valeri’s stunning free kick is a worthy winner — Enjoy!

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Diego Valeri

Goalscorers: Adi (17′), Johnson (40′), Valeri (71′)

Ronaldo back in training ahead of Champions League decider vs. Man City

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo watches the math at the bench during the Champions League semifinal soccer match between Manchester City and Real Madrid, at the City of Manchester stadium in Manchester, England, Tuesday, April 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Cristiano Ronaldo is in a race against time in order to be fit for Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League semifinal decider against Manchester City on Wednesday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

With just 72 hours to kickoff of the two sides’ return leg (0-0 draw at the Etihad Stadium last week), Madrid’s superstar attacker is back in training with an eye toward taking the field on Wednesday after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury. Ronaldo has been unavailable for selection since last featuring on April 2.

He has since downplayed the severity of the injury, saying of last week’s first-leg clash, “If it were a final, I’d play.”

[ MORE: Man City, Real Madrid draw | Atleti top Bayern at home ]

Also on the mend for Madrid is Karim Benzema, who was forced off at halftime (hamstring injury) in the first leg. The Frenchman missed Saturday’s La Liga triumph over Real Sociedad, and his availability seems much more in doubt than that of Ronaldo.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Atleti, Real Madrid separated by one point

Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic, left, celebrates with teammate Jordi Alba, second left, after scoring against Betis during their La Liga soccer match at the Benito Villamarin stadium, in Seville, Spain on Saturday, April. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Angel Fernandez)
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A roundup of the weekend’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Betis 0-2 Barcelona

Barcelona wobbled; they stumbled; they even went down to one knee so as to avoid being knocked out a couple weeks ago. From nine points ahead with fewer than 10 games remaining in the season, to suddenly level on points with Atletico Madrid, the season was slipping away, and in stepped Luis Suarez with back-to-back four-goal games to end a three-game losing streak, followed by Saturday’s 2-0 away triumph over Real Betis.

Ivan Rakitic (50th minute) and Suarez (81st minute – 35 league goals, 15 assists) provided the goals for Luis Enrique’s side with absolutely zero margin for error between now and the end of the season two weeks down the road. The math is simple: if Barca win their remaining two games, they’ll be crowned champions for a second consecutive season, all thanks due to their obscene goal differential.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Rayo Vallecano

How much longer can Atleti keep hold of Antoine Griezmann, Los Rojiblancos‘ brilliant talisman for the last two seasons (43 goals, 6 assists combined)? Still just 25 years old, the Frenchman is a surefire top-10 player in the world right now, and will surely be the subject interest from Europe’s freest-spending clubs once again this summer.

Griezmann bagged the only goal in Atleti’s 1-0 home victory over Rayo Vallecano on Sunday, keeping the Spanish capital’s “other” side level on points with Barca. It was a stunning strike that, in a just world, would wipe away 10 or 15 of Barca’s 31-goal advantage in the goal-differential column.

Real Sociedad 0-1 Real Madrid

“Hey! Hey, guys! Don’t forget about us!” It must be so difficult to be a Real Madrid fan right now, what with Barca and Atleti currently sitting first and second, and everyone seemingly forgetting about Los Blancos and the fact they’re a measly point behind their two most hated rivals. Sure, it’ll require a fatal slip-up by both of the sides ahead of them, but stranger things have happened.

Saturday’s 1-0 victory away to Real Sociedad saw Zinedine Zidane push his record as first-team manager of Madrid to 15W-2D-1L in league play (47 points – best in La Liga during that period). With Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema once again out injured, Gareth Bale scored the game’s only goal with fewer than a dozen minutes remaining in regular time.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Barcelona 36 27 4 5 104 29 75 15-1-2 12-3-3 85
Atlético Madrid 36 27 4 5 60 16 44 14-3-1 13-1-4 85
Real Madrid 36 26 6 4 105 32 73 15-1-2 11-5-2 84

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia vs. Villarreal (ongoing)
Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Celta Vigo
Espanyol 1-0 Sevilla
Granada 3-2 Las Palmas
Deportiov La Coruña 0-2 Getafe
Sporting Gijon 2-0 Eibar