Soccer Culture in the US Needs Community Support to Grow Faster

In many places throughout Europe and Latin America, a soccer club is a built-in part of a community. London neighborhoods can be defined by the football club they support and the bond that creates between members of an area. In the US, this is bond is something we associate more with college sports or maybe baseball. With soccer, there’s not a very rich history in the United States; the game is just now seeing a resurgence in interest for the first time since the early Twentieth Century.

Major League Soccer is a great thing overall for soccer in the US, but it does have some drawbacks. MLS teams don’t generally seem to have a solid connection with their communities. For example, FC Dallas can’t seem to break into the spotlight of the DFW sports scene. Colorado Rapids has poor attendance in Denver. New England Revolution’s support currently is like a drop of water in a bucket compared to the lake of Patriots fans. Maybe it’s the poor stadium locations, the crowded markets, the lack of advertising, or the ownership. Many MLS teams can’t seem to make themselves a big deal in their market.

However, some MLS teams are doing a great job at engaging their city. My new hometown team, Atlanta United, is quickly becoming a big part of the Atlanta community, setting the high water mark for attendance in the 2017 MLS season. Portland Timbers, with their beloved Providence Park nestled in Portland’s Goose Hollow neighborhood, have become a massive stalwart of Portland culture. Orlando City and Seattle Sounders also have some real roots in the community, but many other clubs in MLS either have no roots and poor attendance or decent attendance but live as *just another sports team* instead of being a real part of the community.

I think what soccer needs in the US is more lower-division teams which have the ability to branch out and become deeply involved in their respective cities and towns. Many lower-division clubs in leagues like the NASL, USL, NPSL, and USL PDL have been able to find support. The footprint of soccer fandom in the US should only increase in the future with the introduction of two new third division leagues, the NISA in 2018 and USL Division III in 2019. If more teams can start to spring up in smaller cities that don’t have any major sports teams (or even just one), then those cities will almost certainly come out to support their new club.

This is a sensation that can be seen all over the current USL. Teams like Rio Grande Valley FC, Sacramento Republic, Louisville City, and Reno 1868 come in towns with one or fewer major sports teams, and they all have respectable support. Pro soccer needs to find its way to cities like these. I think in the future they will, but right now, we as soccer and sports fans need to take it upon ourselves to go support our local soccer teams. If your area doesn’t have a team, go call for local businessmen to found a team and plop it into a lower league. You could even get together local soccer fans and found a supporter-owned team. The great thing about soccer is that it’s so flexible. Every supporter can be a part of the team, and every team can be a part of the community. That’s how it should be, and that’s what we need more of here in the US.

Advertisements

Saying Farewell to Atlanta United’s First Home

This past weekend, Atlanta United FC ended its tenure at Bobby Dodd Stadium with a hard-fought 1-1 draw against Orlando City SC. From here on out, the Five Stripes will play home matches at the new Mercedes Benz Stadium.

I only got to see two matches at Bobby Dodd in person, but I have seen many Georgia Tech football games there (sorry, UGA fans). The atmosphere for soccer was something else. Soccer and Atlanta United have left their mark on Bobby Dodd, and ATLiens will remember these past few months of the world’s beautiful game on the Flats with the fondest of memories.

Whether it’s that first-ever ATLUTD goal scored by Yamil Asad in March or all the countless goals thereafter, Bobby Dodd was a joyous sight for all the South’s soccer fans. I doubt that the Five Stripes will play at Georgia Tech ever again, but it was sure fun while it lasted.

With that being said, I’m looking forward to Atlanta United’s future at Mercedes Benz Stadium. It looks like the stands there will be steeper. Combine that with the roof, and the new home of Atlanta soccer ought to have an atmosphere of equal intimacy to BDS. The only downside to MBS is that the roof likely won’t be open for the rest of this 2017 season, but I’m looking forward to many matches of natural-lit soccer in seasons to come.

SunTrust Park is a Stadium Worthy of Housing the Atlanta Braves

When the Braves left Turner Field for the last time last year, I think a lot of people had doubts about SunTrust Park. The renderings looked nice, and everyone in the Braves organization assured fans that it would be a great ballpark, but how could any stadium ever replace the beloved Turner Field, “The Ted”? SunTrust Park was built to solve the Braves’ attendance problems and move the team to a location which could be built up into a commercial area with consumer-friendly surroundings. The location at the congruence of I-285 and I-75 in Cobb County has been seen as… questionable, to say the least, by most Atlanta residents. Still, the ballpark was built. The question is: how nice is SunTrust Park?

FullSizeRender (1)

And, as you can probably guess from the title, I think SunTrust is a gorgeous ballpark. The location was not as big of an issue as I’d expected; traffic was slow near the exits for SunTrust but no worse than traffic for Turner Field had been before. The shopping/dining area around the stadium, named “The Battery”, is small but vibrant. The presence of an Antico Pizza is a major plus.

Once inside the ballpark, a few things are clear: 1) this place is nicer than the Ted and 2) it feels like a Braves ballpark. Maybe it’s the drum or the Chick-fil-A cow or the thousands of tomahawk-chopping fans, but there’s no denying that SunTrust Park is the true home of the Atlanta Braves. For the longest continually operating franchise in American sports, nothing short of spectacular could suffice. I’m happy to see SunTrust Park lives up to the legacy.

Maybe the Braves aren’t a playoff team yet, maybe they’re not going to sell out every game, and maybe they are going to rename the nearby G-Braves… but at least the 3-time World Series champion Atlanta Braves have a world class stadium to call home now. I’ve gone twice this season, and I’m sure I’ll be back soon. Get over to catch a game if you’ve not been yet, and go Braves!

 

Expectations for the Rest of Atlanta United FC’s Inaugural 2017 Campaign

19 down, 15 to go. Atlanta United is a little past the halfway point, and the team is currently sitting pretty at 4th place in the Eastern Conference with 30 points and a 9-7-3 record. The Five Stripes have 3 matches upcoming against our southern neighbors, Orlando City SC. Orlando is currently just a single point behind us on the table, but we have a game in hand. Atlanta is 8 points below the Supporters’ Shield-leading Chicago Fire, a club who has enjoyed much success through the addition of German legend Bastian Schweinsteiger and the excellent play of the league’s top scorer, Nemanja Nikolić. Atlanta won’t play Chicago again this season.

With the team playing well, it’s safe to say that Five Stripes supporters are expecting Atlanta United to be the first MLS team to make the playoffs in their inaugural season since Seattle Sounders managed the feat in 2009. The team has gotten better as the season has progressed, and if not for the loss of Josef Martinez for a grueling stretch of 10 matches, Atlanta United FC could easily be the name of the first or second-place team in the standings right now.

For me personally, I don’t see how the team could not make the playoffs. The team’s 3 games against Orlando should not be all that difficult. Orlando is falling flat lately, and their backline lacks the speed to contain Atlanta United’s forwards. I’m expecting a minimum of 6 points from those 3 matches. Elsewhere in the schedule, matchups aren’t much more difficult. There’s one more meeting with fellow expansion side Minnesota United, a club that the Five Stripes whacked 6-1 in the middle of a Minnesota snowstorm on March 12th. This next match will be October 3rd, at home.

There are also two matches each against Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution. With those clubs sitting 8th and 10th, respectively, in the Eastern Conference standings, they shouldn’t pose much trouble. There’s even a game left against DC United. DC has been Atlanta United’s kryptonite this season, but they also sit in last place with a lowly 18 points. A third of those points come from Atlanta. Perhaps the third time will be the charm?

The only truly difficult matches left are an August 6th visit to Sporting Kansas City and the final game of the season where Atlanta United FC will host a very competent Toronto FC side at Mercedes Benz Stadium on October 22nd. Luckily, Dirty South Soccer has reported that the entire stadium will be open for that finale of a matchup, and I would imagine that even Giovinco and his cronies will have trouble withstanding an atmosphere of 75000 raucous Five Stripes faithful.

With all that being said… keep your heads up, ATLUTD supporters! The Five Stripes will end this year with a fine first season. I’m personally expecting a third place conference finish, a playoff berth, and an early MLS Cup exit, but who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Edit: For what it’s worth, I also expect Gressel to win Rookie of the Year, but he is going to have to at least maintain his current production in order to do so. I’m excited to see what more he has in him.

Atlanta United’s full schedule can be found here: https://www.atlutd.com/schedule

Major League Baseball’s World Series Champion Needs International Competition

Has everyone else ever thought about how the traditional World Series isn’t really a world series at all? The title presumes that there are no other baseball teams in the world. It’s time to step out of our little bubble and take on some overseas challengers.

Japan’s league, Nippon Professional Baseball, is the second best baseball league in the world. The league is home to numerous former MLB players, and it is the source of many famous Japanese players like Ichiro. The league plays from March to October. They use similar rules to Major League Baseball with only some minor changes, none of which are all that game-breaking. Their league even parallels MLB in that only have the NPB teams use designated hitters. The two leagues are much more similar than many American fans might think.

So why should the World Series champion play the Japan Series champion? For one, it would thoroughly legitimize whichever team won this intercontinental series. It would not have any serious logistical obstacles since both leagues play during the same months. The series could happen in late November and be played over seven games. Transportation may be a problem, but the series could either take place over a longer period of time than a conventional 7-game series or simply take place entirely in one country one year and the other country the next.

I think the game of baseball needs something like this. In America, baseball is starting to lose its place as the favorite sport of younger generations, but in Japan, baseball is the sport. A spark is needed. A Trans-Pacific Championship series would be highly attended on both fronts, and it would bring a new feeling of globalization to America’s great pastime which is beginning to seem out-of-touch and boring to millennials.

The US Open Cup Gives Clubs From Lower Divisions Real Relevance

I think more than any other sport, soccer is capable of bringing the world together as one community. In soccer, any team in the world has the potential to play on some of the world’s grandest stages, from the pro club an hour away to the amateur team just down the road. National cup tournaments like the storied Lamar Hunt US Open Cup give every team in every nation a chance to compete for something meaningful.

By winning these tournaments, teams can gain entrance to their federation’s champions’ league and go on to compete against the best clubs from their respective continent. The winners of these continental champions’ leagues then go on to compete in the annual FIFA Club World Cup. The Club World Cup is a seven-team knockout tournament containing the winners of each champions’ league as well as the winner of the host nation’s top domestic league.

In the United States, soccer fandom is still in its infancy. Major League Soccer is barely two decades old. Lower division leagues like the USL, NASL, and NPSL are just now starting to blossom. However, unlike in other countries throughout the world where soccer clubs may gain promotion to better leagues as they win championships, the American soccer league pyramid is closed to promotion and relegation. This means that there is no true fluidity, so a second or third division club could never, ever hope to gain access to the CONCACAF Champions League purely by winning their league games.

That’s where the US Open Cup comes in. For the lower league teams, the US Open Cup represents the one true chance for small-city clubs to compete at the highest level. By winning in the annual tournament, these teams have chances to face out-of-country clubs in competitive play. The supporters of these minor league clubs are starting to recognize the significance of the US Open Cup, and they’ve come out to support their hometown teams in a big way.

As soccer continues to grow in the United States, the US Open Cup needs to come out of the shadows and into the spotlight. ESPN recently televised that record-breaking match between FC Cincinnati and Chicago Fire. With any luck, more and more games will be televised, and the USSF will feel compelled to increase the prize money. As the prizes increase, MLS clubs will pay more attention to the tournament, and lower division teams will start to gain serious rewards for their efforts.

In the future, I’m sure that the US Open Cup will be as noteworthy in the United States as the FA Cup is in England. Until then… support your hometown club. Go to the games. Cheer loud and proud. With enough support, your team could be playing Real Madrid at the Club World Cup someday.

Looking Back on the First-Ever Atlanta United FC Match against New York Red Bulls, and Looking Ahead

I was at the first Atlanta United soccer match ever. I make this post a few months after the fact because I’m about to attend my second match this upcoming weekend against Columbus Crew, and I’ve now had a great deal of time to think about the opening match and how the team has evolved since then.

First off, I must remark on how much support has poured out across Metro Atlanta for this soccer club. I thought the team would be pretty popular, and I’m sure Mr. Blank must’ve thought so, too, or he wouldn’t have bought a franchise… but it’s really been crazy. It’s amazing to see Bobby Dodd packed every single home match. You can hear them roaring through the tv. The commentators pause often because they are awestruck by the volume coming from the crowd. And the chants! The Viking clap, the side-vs-side Atlanta United yells, the entire stadium transforming into a choir for the national anthem. Soccer is the beautiful game for a reason.

All of that is great, and I’m extremely excited to be getting back down to the Flats for another match. When I went back in March, I suppose you could say that the fan experience was still a work in progress. The stadium was woefully understaffed, although I didn’t go to the concessions anyway. The fan didn’t really have many proper chants or anything; we kind of just screamed or devolved into shouting “A-T-L” over and over.

The first goal in Atlanta United’s history, Yamil Asad’s score off a beautiful cross from Tyrone Mears… That moment will live on in Atlanta sports history for a long time, I think. Still, we lost the game after blowing a late lead, and we showed there something which will have to improve over time: a lack of cohesion.

Since that first match, it’s seemed like Atlanta has been a very hit-or-miss club. Obviously, Josef Martinez’s injury was a massive blow, not just for the loss of a scorer but for the chemistry which could have been built up in the attack if he were playing the entire season. Miguel Almirón, on the other hand, has been improving every match and is a great joy to watch. The key for Atlanta United needs to be improved chemistry, and I’m sure that’ll only come with time. My only worry is that the improved chemistry at the tail end of the season will be offset by fatigue since the last month or two of Atlanta’s schedule will be packed to the brim.

I’m excited to see the team live again next Saturday (6/17) against Columbus, but before then, I’m hoping we put our best foot forward against Charleston Battery in Kennesaw on Wednesday in the US Open Cup. It’s a fun tournament, and it represents Atlanta United’s best chance to earn a trophy and a CONCACAF Champions League berth this season.

Will Basketball Replace Football and Baseball as America’s Top Sport?

I haven’t posted for awhile, and honestly, I was just wanting to make any sort of basketball post. I’ve been playing a ton of basketball lately. It’s a fun game.

However, as the title says, I want to know if it can not just be a fun game, but the fun game. Anyone who follows me on Twitter (@ATLknight7) obviously knows how much I adore soccer and the local club, Atlanta United, and I really do think soccer’s time is coming… just not yet. But the tides are shifting in American sports culture. 

Millenials are the generation which will determine which sport is the most popular in a few years when they are the largest television demographic, and quite frankly, a lot of millenials find baseball boring. I agree with them to the point that there are more exciting sports, but I usually watch baseball to relax, not to “get hype”. Millenials don’t generally watch baseball to relax, or even tv at all; they watch Netflix.

The problem on the football side is a bit different. Concussion awareness is good for keeping people safe, but it’s ruining the future of the game. People may love to watch football, but parents don’t want their kids playing football anymore. The effect isn’t going to be immediate, but as more and more good atheletes turn down football in favor of basketball and soccer, the quality on the field will decline. Football will be a business with a poor product, and Americans won’t pay to watch a bad show.

Now, what about basketball? It’s 1) exciting and 2) safe. Yes, you can get injured terribly playing basketball, but it’s not as common as football injuries. Moreover, basketball players don’t suffer from repetitive head trauma like football players do since basketball is a sport which is generally played upright. Basketball also doesn’t have any problem exciting its fans; we see that every NBA seasons, and we especially see that with NCAA’s annual March Madness tournament. Basketball is electric. The fans love it.

So what is preventing basketball from overtaking football and baseball? In my mind, nothing but time. 

The 2017 MLS Expansion Process and the Coup Which Snubbed Sacramento Republic FC

Yesterday, twelve prospective ownership groups submitted their bids in competition for the 25th-28th franchises of Major League Soccer. The 12 cities involved will be judged over the upcoming months with regards to the feasibility, sustainability, and community support behind their bids, with the 25th and 26th franchises set to be unveiled sometime later this year.

Yesterday there was some turmoil in the bidding process with regards to the frontrunner, Sacramento. According to numerous sources which have been somewhat validated today from this official club press release, the city’s immensely popular USL (second division) club, Sacramento Republic FC, has been omitted from Sacramento’s expansion bid. The cause of this omission is evidently a dispute between the main investor behind the bid, Kevin Nagle, and the existing ownership group of SRFC. The move has led many Republic supporters to take up the cry of “#NoRepublicNoParty” on Twitter, and the story has since been taken up by leading sports news sites like Deadspin and Goal.

Before yesterday, I would have thought Sacramento to be two shoes in for the 25th slot, but now I’m not so sure. I think Sacramento will likely still get into MLS during this round of expansion due to their stadium plan and high levels of support within the city, but I say this under the assumption that MLS commissioner Don Garber will be able to successfully moderate a solution between Republic and Nagle. We’ll give them the 25th slot still despite the mix-up yesterday.

The second city I’d look at is Cincinnati. FC Cincinnati set records in their inaugural season last year for the highest single-game and season total USL attendances ever, and they’ve already amassed the sort of fanbase that you’d expect to see out of a ten-year-old club. Although the club has not yet released a stadium plan associated with their bid to the public, the wealthy Lindner family which owns the team should have the capital and connections to privately finance any stadium they desire. I’m thinking Cincy will be the 26th expansion team.

The third city I believe will get a bid would also become the third city in Texas to host an MLS team, San Antonio. San Antonio FC is a second-year USL franchise playing at Toyota Field, formerly the home of the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions.Their current stadium was built to be expandable, so they already have that in place. They are also owned by the same group which owns the San Antonio Spurs, so I would expect them to piggy-back off the Spurs’ brand and market themselves well within the city. San Antonio is also home to many Hispanic Americans, a demographic which MLS sees as valuable. I expect San Antonio to grab the 27th spot in the expansion round.

The final slot, I think, is a bit more uncertain than the others which I admittedly feel are in strong positions. With that in mind, I’m predicting that Major League Soccer will select Phoenix to be included in this round of expansion. While Phoenix and its current USL club, Phoenix Rising FC (formerly Arizona United SC),  may not currently possess the wealth of support you already see in competing bidders such as Indy Eleven, Tampa Bay Rowdies, and North Carolina FC, Phoenix Rising FC does possess one important asset which MLS will likely value over all others: location, location, location. As of now, Phoenix represents the largest market in the United States and Canada without a Major League Soccer franchise. Indy and Detroit are in an increasingly saturated Midwest, and Tampa would be (presumably) the third team in Florida. Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh (NCFC), St. Louis, and San Diego also bid, but their markets aren’t in as valuable of locations as Phoenix. Additionally, Phoenix Rising’s stacked ownership group ought to have enough funds to come up with a proper stadium, and the rendering they released yesterday look pretty nice. Phoenix gets the 28th spot.

My Predictions for the 2017 College Football Playoff Championship Game

Tonight, two titanic programs, Clemson and Alabama, will meet in the College Football Playoff Championship Game for the second consecutive year. I figured I’d get my thoughts about the game down on paper here so I might reflect upon them later this week.

Last year, the game was hectic, but Alabama emerged as the victor. This year, the stage is set much in the same way: a seemingly invincible Alabama Crimson Tide team is the heavy favorite against an older Clemson Tigers team led by Deshaun Watson. I think the game will be one for the ages. Nick Saban’s firing of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have the offense operating slightly different, and Dabo Swinney will be looking to take advantages of area where Steve Sarkisian’s playcalling may differ from Kiffin’s.

Despite the 45-40 score at the end of last year’s game in favor of Alabama, Clemson actually had more firstdowns (31 as compared to 18) and total yards (550-473) than the Tide. It’s clear that Clemson’s offense is fully capable of scoring even against Alabama’s superb defense.

In a game where all the cards will lay face-up on the table, veteran leadership is needed. I think Alabama’s freshman quarterback, Jalen Hurts, will stumble under the spotlight. For the 2017 National Championship Game, I’ve got Clemson winning over Alabama by a score of 35 to 31.