Arthur Blank

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


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.

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.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.