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.

Premier League “Goal Rush” to debut this weekend

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At 10 a.m. ET this Saturday you will be able to access NBC Sports Digital’s newest product, Premier League Goal Rush.

It will be available on the NBC Sports App and on NBCSports.com as goals from all six matches in the 10 a.m. ET window will be shown simultaneously as live look-ins occurs around all the grounds in the Premier League.

STREAM GOAL RUSH HERE

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Campionshi Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of NFL RedZone-like action from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window.

More info is available here, plus the quick snippet below explains what is coming up on Goal Rush and how to access it.


Premier League host John Dykes will host the program, which focuses on one match and features live look-ins on action at all the grounds. The show will follow the most important stories and include a round-up of all the first-half action at halftime. Viewers will also be kept updated with graphics, headlines and statistics.

“We are excited to offer Goal Rush, which will provide fans with a unique Premier League viewing experience during windows with simultaneous matches,” said Rick Cordella, SVP and General Manager, Digital Media, NBC Sports Group.

Goal Rush will feature Watford v. Arsenal, and include live look-ins at the other five matches in the Saturday 10 a.m. ET window. All Premier League matches in the 10 a.m. ET window will be made available on NBCSN or on Premier League Extra Time, a bonus television package available to MVPDs at no extra cost for customers who receive NBCSN. All games preceded and followed by Premier League Live pre- and post-match shows from the NBC Sports Group International Broadcast Center in Stamford, Conn.

All Premier League games will be streamed on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app — NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, tablets, and connected TVs. Coverage will be streamed via “TV Everywhere,” giving consumers additional value to for their subscription service, and making high quality content available to MVPD customers both in and out of the home and on multiple platforms. The NBC Sports app is powered by Playmaker Media and available on the iTunes App Store, Google Play, Windows Store, Roku Channel Store, Apple TV and Amazon Fire.

Premier League preview: Hull City vs. Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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  • Hull last beat United in November 1974
  • United have won 3 of last 4 games at Hull in the PL
  • Zlatan has 3 goals in his first 2 PL games

Hull City host Manchester United on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 .m. ET on NBC and online via NBC Sports) with both teams perfect through two games.

That’s right. The Tigers have stunned everyone in the opening weeks of the season with caretaker boss Mike Phelan only having 13 fit senior players to choose from but they beat Leicester City and Swansea City to make it six points from six. Quite remarkable.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE 

Phelan was United’s assistant manager under Sir Alex Ferguson from 2008-13 and won three Premier League titles with the Red Devils. He still hasn’t been handed the Hull job permanently despite an incredible start to the season after Steve Bruce left in the summer and the Allam family continue to push ahead with plans to sell the club to Chinese investors.

As for Manchester United, Jose Mourinho and his newly-assembled side have gone about their opening PL games in workmanlike fashion with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring three goals in two games and Paul Pogba impressing on his debut.

United will be confident they can make it three wins on the sin and Mourinho’s biggest problem is keeping everyone his massive squad happy. Newsflash: that isn’t going to happen.

In team news Hull are gradually getting more players back with Harry Maguire available but they are still looking to add plenty of new faces before the transfer window shuts with Ryan Mason and others close to securing moves to Yorkshire. As for United, they have no new injury worries and Mourinho has a massive selection headache.

What they’re saying

Mourinho on the the final days of the transfer window: “I think we’re going to have a very quiet week, not surrounded by helicopters, waiting for somebody to leave or to arrive. I am more than happy with the squad I have. I have 23 players in the squad and, in principle, there is nobody leaving and nobody is coming.”

“It’s more than enough and, if you have a problem or an opportunity, then I have a few young players in the academy that I will be more than happy to give acceleration to in their process.”

Phelan on Zlatan joining United in past: “There have to be moments, in a career span like Sir Alex Ferguson had, when you come across and think about such star players as Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The size of Manchester United means you want to recruit the very best. It demands it. He had to be a target. I am sure he was on the radar many times. But he was at top, top clubs and because of that, even though it was Manchester United, the prospect of him moving to the Premier League was always very slim — he was at the best anyway.”

Prediction

Hull’s bubble will finally burst and United will get on with the job with ruthless efficiency. Zlatan is on fire and will torment Hull’s makeshift defense, while Pogba will drive the Red Devils on from midfield. 3-1 to Manchester United.

Local lad Matt Targett aims to kick on at Southampton

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19:  Antonio Valencia of Manchester United closes down Matt Targett of Southampton during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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There’s nothing like having a homegrown hero in your team and Southampton certainly knows all about that.

[ MORE: Saints to play Inter ]

Matt Targett is the latest product of Saints’ famed academy to break into the first team and the 20-year-old was born and bred in Southampton.

The England U-21 left back impressed under Ronald Koeman and and broke into the team as a 17-year-old during the 2014-15 Premier League campaign.

Speaking exclusively to ProSoccerTalk ahead of Southampton’s clash with Sunderland this Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) Targett revealed his pride at representing his team in the Premier League.

“I am immensely proud to be able to play for the club that I grew up watching and following,” Targett explained. “It has played such a big role in my life, having progressed through the academy to the first team. It’s a really special feeling to be able to run out on the St Mary’s turf and play for my hometown team.”

It has been a slow start for Saints this season with one point from their opening two games but new manager Claude Puel is putting his stamp on the team with a new diamond formation in midfield.

Targett — an attacking left back who is comfortable on the ball and can also operate as a wing-back and at left midfield — and his teammates know they must improve in the weeks and months ahead but they are confident they can improve as the season goes on.

“There are areas we know we can improve on as well as positives that we can build on,” Targett said. “Our new signings have integrated well into the group and there is a good feeling in the squad. We know the quality that we have in the team and we’re confident that quality will show.”

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Nordin Amrabat of Watford battle for possession with sMatt Targett of Southampton during the Premier League match between Southampton and Watford at St Mary's Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Looking ahead to the game against Sunderland this weekend, Targett knows it would be a nice feeling to head into the international break with a win and says Saints have been “working hard in training” to get a positive result against David Moyes‘ men.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from Saints’ loss at Man United ]

At the ripe age of 20, Targett has now appeared in each of the last three PL campaigns for Saints and has racked up 33 appearances in all competitions despite having England international left back Ryan Bertrand ahead of him in the pecking order.

Target feels like he is ready to keep pushing on this season.

“Every Premier League season is a big one but clearly I am aiming to continue developing and progressing as a player,” Targett said. “I want to keep adding different elements to my game and listening to the coaches on what areas I can work on. It’s a big season for the club with Europa League football too, so I am very much looking forward to that.”

AVIGNON, FRANCE - MAY 29: James Ward Prowse, Jack Stephens and Matthew Targett, all of Southampton and England pose with the trophy during the Final of the Toulon Tournament between England and France at Parc Des Sports on May 29, 2016 in Avignon, France. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
James Ward Prowse and Matthew Targett (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

As is usually the case at Southampton, Targett is just one of a number of promising youngsters currently in the system. After selling on the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana to powerhouse clubs, Saints continue to churn out young internationals.

This summer Targett was part of a England U-21 side which had five Saints academy graduates — Arsenal’s Calum Chambers and Saints’ James Ward-Prowse (captain of England), Jack Stephens, Nathan Redmond and Targett himself — and won the prestigious Toulon Tournament in France.

Does he think he and Saints’ other youngsters are ready to play week in, week out in the PL?

“It was fantastic to be part of the winning Toulon team and great for Southampton Football Club to have several players gain that experience on the international stage. The club has a great reputation for nurturing talent and that success with the England under 21 side can only help us,” Targett said. “Although it obviously depends on several factors, the club has consistently shown that it gives youth that opportunity to go out and play in the biggest league in the world.”

On Friday Southampton were drawn against Italian giants Inter Milan, Sparta Prague and Hapoel Beer-Sheva in the UEFA Europa League group stage.

It is the first time Saints have ever reached this stage of the competition and local lad Targett is looking forward to some memorable nights ahead.

“It will be good to test ourselves against some of the best clubs on the continent and I’m sure we’ll be playing in front of some special atmospheres, especially at St Mary’s.”

Premier League preview: Tottenham vs. Liverpool

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Jordan Henderson of Liverpool and Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on April 2, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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  • Spurs haven’t beaten Liverpool in seven PL games (0-5-2) 
  • Liverpool have the most PL goals in 2016 (45)
  • Liverpool first PL team since 1997-98 to open season with 3 away games

Tottenham Hotspur host Liverpool at White Hart Lane on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports) in an early season clash between two top four contenders.

Spurs have started the season in a solid manner, gaining four points from their opening two games but Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen have yet to get going. As for Liverpool we’ve seen their Jekyll and Hyde persona at its finest as Jurgen Klopp‘s side ripped apart Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in a 4-3 opening day win but they lost at Burnley last time out.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

This fixture has seen Liverpool go unbeaten in their last seven games against Spurs, scoring an average of 2.7 goals per game. This is also the third highest-scoring fixture in PL history. So, expect plenty of entertainment.

Klopp’s first game in charge of Liverpool last season was at Spurs in October in a rather dull 0-0 draw. Liverpool won’t be involved in many scoreless draws this campaign as their top-heavy side possesses plenty of fine attacking talents in Daniel Sturridge, Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana and Divock Origi to name but a few.

In team news Spurs are still without captain and star goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, while Mousa Dembele is still suspended. Liverpool will be without Emre Can after he was injured in midweek and Philippe Coutinho is doubtful.

What they’re saying

Pochettino on Spurs improving: “Sometimes people don’t realise how important last season was. To be involved in the title race and to try to win the Premier League, many things happened that meant we improved a lot and learned a lot throughout the season. Now we will be tougher than last season when we try to challenge again.”

Jurgen Klopp on Sturridge playing out wide: “I don’t want to play Daniel as a wide player but of course he can start there and of course he can play there but in the decisive moments he needs to be involved in all of the finishing situations.  I think he scored both goals [when he was] inside the box so he wasn’t on the wing in this moment. That is flexible football. Daniel is a very smart player. He’s good at getting himself into positions where it’s not easy to defend. Both game Burton and Burnley were games where we didn’t need offensive wingers in these positions. It’s not a fixed position for him. There is absolutely no problem. I don’t know exactly what he said but when I talk to him there is absolutely no issue.”

Prediction

I think Liverpool’s defensive frailties are too severe right now for them to do anything other than attack. That will leave plenty of space for Kane, Vincent Janssen, Alli et al. to exploit and I see Pochettino’s side winning this. 3-1 to Spurs.