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Atlanta becomes U.S. soccer’s new hotbed, but will it last?

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ATLANTA (AP) The cheer begins slowly, rhythmically – everyone raising their hands above their heads, clapping in sync to the beat of the drum, screaming in unison and picking up speed with each chant.

A! ….. T! ….. L!

A! … T! ….L!

A! T! L!

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Welcome to soccer’s newest hotbed, which has sprouted in a city known for its fickle sports fans and all the heartbreak doled out by its teams.

Atlanta United has been a shining star amid a year of intense disappointment for American soccer , a dashing, high-scoring team that has drawn record crowds and stirred fervent passion in its very first season.

From packed stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, to flag-waving fans who bounce up and down from the opening kick to the final whistle , an Atlanta United game provide the latest glimmer of hope that the U.S. might someday embrace the world’s most popular sport the way the rest of the world does.

“This is unprecedented, certainly in our sport,” said Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer. “This team has attracted the attention of the entire soccer- and football-playing world.”

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Garber knew something was up when United sold more than 30,000 season tickets Before playing its first game. Then, a crowd of 55,000 turned out for opening night , which was held in a college football stadium on Georgia Tech’s campus while workers scrambled to finish $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium .

As the days and weeks and months passed, from the promise of spring through the heat of summer to the changing leaves of fall, the fans kept coming. When the team finally moved into new retractable-roof home in mid-September, they didn’t let up. Finally, this past weekend, a crowd of 71,874 attended the regular-season finale , more than any other single game in MLS history.

It was hardly an anomaly. United set the previous record five weeks earlier with its first 70,000-plus turnout. For the season, Atlanta averaged 48,200 per game, easily eclipsing the mark set two years earlier by Seattle, the MLS’ flagship franchise. For comparison’s sake, United’s numbers eclipsed the top team in Italy’s Serie A during the 2016-17 season and would’ve ranked in the upper half of the attendance table for any of Europe’s top leagues.

United has provided some much-needed good news for American soccer, which is still reeling from the stunning failure of the U.S. national team to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia .

“Without any history on this club, to build something like that, to build the support that we got, that’s very impressive, that in just one year we could get to this point,” said Kevin Kratz, a German midfielder who plays for United.

Actually, Atlanta’s soccer history goes back to the fledgling days of the sport in the U.S.

The Chiefs were founded in 1967 and captured the first championship in the North American Soccer League (NASL). But the team never drew as many as 7,000 fans per game, bouncing between Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Georgia Tech’s stadium and even a high school facility south of the city. Hardly anyone noticed when the franchise went out of business in 1973, having spent its final year known as the Apollos.

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The Chiefs returned in 1979, this time owned by Ted Turner, but not much changed. Attendance was poor and the team struggled on the field, lasting only three years before folding again.

This is a totally different scenario. United was built for success, from owner Arthur Blank (who also owns the NFL Falcons) to a new stadium to a metro area that is now home to nearly 6 million people and a far more diverse population than it had during the Chiefs era.

Still, the popularity of the team caught everyone off guard.

“There was just an energy and a passion that I think is just similar to whether you’re in Europe watching a game, whether you’re in South America,” United president Darren Eales said. “The fans stand up for the whole game, the fans doing the A-T-L Icelandic chant, those sort of rituals and excitement behind the game … I think it’s a new America. It’s a sport that brought together the city of Atlanta, a city of transplants that’s very international.

“It’s become their club.”

The day after the regular season ended, United was recognized for its impressive debut when MLS awarded the 2018 All-Star Game to Mercedes-Benz Stadium . But the team has more immediate priorities, having qualified for the playoffs and the chance to host a first-round game against Columbus – an original MLS franchise that, in an interesting twist, is pondering a possible move to Texas because of waning attendance and demands for a new stadium.

Another huge, raucous crowd is expected Thursday night.

“They aren’t just spectators,” said United goalkeeper Brad Guzan, a longtime member of the U.S. national team. “They’re involved in terms of their voice. … It’s truly remarkable.”

United is hoping to build the sort of championship success that has eluded Atlanta’s big league teams. Other than the Chiefs’ long-forgotten title, the Braves are the only other franchise to win it all, and that was more than two decades ago in the 1995 World Series.

More indicative of the city’s sports history was the Falcons’ performance in the last Super Bowl. They squandered a 25-point lead in the second half and lost to the New England Patriots in overtime, casting a pall over Atlanta that still lingers just a bit .

Off the field, United still must prove it can hold the city’s attention for a sustained period.

Look no further than Atlanta’s two National Hockey League teams, the Flames and the Thrashers. Both drew large crowds in their early days, but it didn’t last.

Both wound up leaving the city .

United intends to write a new chapter.

They may be on to something.

“Actually, I’m not surprised,” said Elizabeth Edwards, who attended the final regular-season game. “Soccer has been huge in Georgia, and it’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I’m a middle-school teacher, so I watch my kids play. They care more about soccer than they do football.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

VIDEO: 10 red cards in abandoned Brazilian game

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This is utterly bonkers.

There are plenty of derbies around the globe which put fans and players on edge, but this was different.

Vitoria and Bahia squared off in the Bahia State derby in Salvador, Brazil and the match was abandoned amid violent scenes on the pitch which saw 10 players sent off.

The first half saw eight yellows dished out, but it all kicked off in the 50th minute after Vinicius scored a penalty kick for Bahia and shall we say danced before appearing to hump mid-air in front of the Vitoria fans. Predictably, that didn’t go down well.

Chaos ensued (see the video clip below) as punches flew in and the referee ended up sending off eight players, which included substitutes nearby, as all hell broke loose behind the Vitoria goal.

After a lengthy break, eventually three Vitoria players were sent off and five from Bahia, but there was to be more drama as two more Vitoria players were sent off in the 79th minute to take their tally of players on the pitch to seven.

That meant the game was abandoned and Bahia will likely be awarded a 3-0 victory.

The next time someone tells you a derby game is particularly “feisty” just show them the video below…


Arsenal sign record-breaking deal with Emirates

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Arsenal have announced a new sponsorship deal with Emirates Airlines which will run until 2024 and is said to be worth over $56 million per season.

In a statement released on the club website, they call the five-year extension to the current deal “largest sponsorship deal ever signed by the club” as Emirates will continue to appear on the shirts and training gear of all of the teams.

Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis revealed the reason behind extending the relationship with Emirates.

“Our shirt partnership is the longest running in the Premier League and one of the longest relationships in world sport. This mutual commitment is testimony to the strength and depth of our unique relationship. Emirates are again demonstrating their great belief in our approach and ambition and their significantly increased investment will help us continue to compete for trophies and bring more success to the club and our fans around the world.”

The Gunners also confirmed that their home stadium will be known as the Emirates Stadium until at least 2028, as per the agreement reached in 2012.

Where do Arsenal rank in terms of shirt sponsorship deals?

Manchester United lead the way with their deal with Chevrolet said to be worth over $74.2 million per year, while Chelsea sit in second with a $56 million per year partnership with Yokohama but the Gunners are now alongside their London rivals.

Manchester City and Tottenham are just behind them when it comes to sponsorship deals, while Liverpool’s relationship with Standard Chartered runs until the end of next season.

Money from Wembley replay will ‘support Rochdale for two or three years’

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Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

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For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.