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How Your Soccer Team Can Make It in America

The expansion Atlanta United have set attendance records on their way to the MLS Cup playoffs in their debut season. From a glistening new stadium to a pedigreed staff and the exciting product they put on the field, the club is forging a new blueprint for Major League Soccer.

Anton Walkes, Hector Villalba, and Leandro González Pirez of Atlanta United
Anton Walkes, Hector Villalba, and Leandro González Pirez of Atlanta United
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Atlanta—a city famous for Outkast, Coca-Cola, and the most agonizing defeat in Super Bowl history—has a new title: Soccertown, U.S.A.

While the Atlanta Hawks, Braves, and Falcons have failed to reach the top 10 of their respective sports for attendance this season, the expansion Atlanta United have sat comfortably atop MLS attendance rankings from their first match. In fact, with an average of more than 48,000 fans per game, Atlanta United have the highest average attendance of any non-NFL team in a major American sports league this year, besting the L.A. Dodgers.

On Sunday, United broke a record they set 35 days prior for the most-attended MLS match in the history of the league with more than 70,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the venue they share with the Falcons. This season, Atlanta has also broken the U.S. record for soccer attendance per game, set by the New York Cosmos of the NASL in 1978.

That Cosmos team, led by German legend Franz Beckenbauer, won the NASL championship. Atlanta United, without big-name star power, are the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and will host the Columbus Crew in the opening round of the MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday. Atlanta is only the fourth team in the 25-year history of MLS to make the playoffs in an expansion season.

MLS is wasting no time in using United’s historic inaugural season to its advantage. The league confirmed Monday that the 2018 All-Star Game will be held in Atlanta.

How did this all happen so quickly? Doug Roberson, who has been covering soccer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2009, always knew that an MLS franchise would have strong support in Atlanta. In fact, the team sold more than 20,000 season tickets before a manager was even hired. A state-of-the-art stadium surely helps, but when Roberson talks to fans, they rave about United’s fast-paced, high-scoring, aesthetically pleasing style of play. “I think that a lot of people worry way too much about stadiums and arenas, and if they would focus a little bit more on the product they’re putting on the field, people are still gonna come,” Roberson said.

That sounds like a lesson that can be applied to all sports franchises obsessing over new stadia but especially for MLS. Case in point: Unless they get new downtown digs, the Crew are threatening to leave Columbus, Ohio, for Austin, Texas. On the horizon are four more MLS expansion teams: LAFC will make its MLS debut next year in a downtown L.A. stadium, David Beckham’s Miami expansion franchise is still awaiting final approval from MLS, and the league will vote on the next two cities to be awarded franchises during MLS Cup weekend in December.

With MLS continuing to open up shop in new markets, there are lessons to be learned from how an expansion club in the Southeastern United States became the hottest ticket in the league.

1. Have an owner who isn’t cheap.

MLS knew that if it were to place a franchise in Atlanta that Arthur Blank, who has been the owner of the Falcons for the past 15 years, was the man the league wanted to lead it.

“We’ve been talking to Arthur Blank going all the way back to 2004 about potentially joining Major League Soccer,” said MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche. “He and his staff had been part of the bid process back in 2007. And then they politely stepped out because they really wanted to focus on their stadium plan, and as they finalized their plans for what is now Mercedes-Benz Stadium they came back to us and said, ‘The time is right.’”

That stadium not only houses the Falcons, but will also host future college bowl games, Final Fours, and Super Bowls. But soccer is no afterthought here: Blank has always made his commitment to the United a priority. There are retractable seats on the lower level that allow the width of the playing field to be extended from 53 ⅓ yards for football games to 75 yards for soccer matches, and the United have their own locker room. Also, during United games all evidence that an NFL team shares the stadium is removed, unlike, say, a New England Revolution match at Gillette Stadium.

Blank’s commitment to make the United not a guest in the Falcons’ house, but a co-tenant, established credibility that has paid major dividends—the team went on a 12-match unbeaten streak at home this season.

2. Hire soccer people with pedigree.

Darren Eales had no reason to leave England. He was having great success as executive director of the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur. He helped negotiate the transfers of Clint Dempsey from Tottenham Hotspur to the Seattle Sounders, and DeAndre Yedlin to Spurs in the reverse direction. But the Eales-assisted deal that the international soccer community will always remember is the sale of Gareth Bale from Tottenham to Real Madrid in 2013 for a then-world-record $132 million. However, after talking with Blank, Eales was ready to come to America.

Actually, it was a return to the U.S. for the Englishman. He played college soccer for a year at West Virginia and then transferred to Brown, where he would ultimately be inducted into the university’s athletic hall of fame. Eales played a few years of professional soccer in smaller leagues before going back to England to get his law degree from Cambridge. He worked for a time as in-house legal counsel for West Brom before joining Tottenham in 2010. At a glance, Eales has the ideal résumé for someone to lead an MLS club—an ex-player in America with European football executive experience. In 2014, Eales was named president of the MLS expansion club in Atlanta.

The next few hires were critical. Former USMNT captain Carlos Bocanegra was brought in as technical director (and has since been promoted to vice president). Eales and Bocanegra combined to hire a head coach with credentials that would make any soccer fan take notice.

The Argentine Gerardo “Tata” Martino burst onto the international scene during the 2010 World Cup when he led Paraguay to its first, and only, quarterfinal appearance. He has since served as manager for FC Barcelona during the 2013-14 season, and most recently, the Argentine national team. Once Tata was on board, the hardest part of being an expansion franchise became significantly easier.

3. Invest in good, young players rather than high-priced names.

Martino played and coached in Argentina for most of his professional career. With deep ties to South America, he was able to have great success in recruiting players from his home continent.

“He was able to just call a lot of quality players from South America—[midfielders Miguel] Almirón [and Carlos Carmona], and [forwards Yamil] Asad and [Josef] Martinez, and [defender Leandro] González Pirez—and convince them to come join an expansion team,” Roberson said.

Even with the golden South American touch, United went just as aggressively after talent in their home country. Defender Michael Parkhurst—one of the club’s vocal leaders—was one of United’s three all-stars, and he was acquired via trade from Columbus for general allocation money. Another of Atlanta’s all-stars, defender Greg Garza, is an American player on loan from Liga MX’s Tijuana.

While talent is always an important part of roster-building, longer-term sustainability is determined by the age of key players. Among United’s South American players, only Carmona is over 25. Overall, United have the third-youngest roster in MLS with an average age of 25.17.

Eales knew that many MLS clubs have gone the route of bringing in big-name, aging European players such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo, hoping that their star power would help put fans in the stands. That strategy calls for clubs to use MLS designated-player exemptions—a league rule which allows teams to sign three players that won’t count against the salary cap—on high-profile imports. Of course, the most notable example of this D.P. strategy is when the Los Angeles Galaxy signed a 31-year-old Beckham to a $250 million contract in 2007.

That was MLS 1.0; the Atlanta United example looks to be the model moving forward. “I felt the time was right that we were going to try and get players in their prime or even before their prime and attract them to MLS and to America,” Eales said. “We went after three players that were 23 or younger. They’ve been fantastic for us, but I think all of our fans will admit … when we signed them, people didn’t know who they were. There wasn’t any name recognition. What has happened now is that they’ve become stars in their own right.”

Among those new stars, the Venezuelan forward Martinez has been worth the price of admission alone. Had Martinez not missed 14 games this season due to injury and Venezuelan national-team commitments, he would’ve run away with the league MVP award. Martinez scored 19 goals in only 20 matches, averaging 1.12 goals per 90 minutes, and is the only player in the league this season to win player of the month twice. Along with the Argentine winger Hector Villalba and the Paraguayan midfielder Almirón, the South American trio combined to score 41 goals during the regular season—more tallies than the entire team output of Sporting Kansas City, Orlando City SC, D.C. United, the San Jose Earthquakes, and the Colorado Rapids. The challenge for the next few seasons will be keeping the band together.

4. When it comes to attracting fans, style is important.

While Eales and Martino are from different corners of the world, they are kindred spirits in the way that they want United to play: an exciting and attacking brand of soccer, with a dynamic style that’s fast and fluid. It’s the style Eales grew accustomed to while working in England.

That is also how Martino was instructed to play during his days as a member of Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina. They played a high-pressing, fast-paced style of soccer, and in 2017, that style not only has United in the playoffs, but also has made them one of the best offensive teams in MLS. They lead the league in shots on goal, and are no. 2 in goals scored and assists.

While most teams don’t care how ugly a game is as long as they win, Eales jokes that he would rather win a game 4-3 than 1-0. “We all like to talk up sports and try to make it more important than it is, but it’s entertainment. It’s about having fun,” Eales said. “I didn’t want us to be a team that came in and tried to make the playoffs by being pragmatic and just being defensive and perhaps they could grind out a few results here and there. We want to have a bit of style and just hit the ground running with a team that people would say, ‘We’re fun to watch.’”

Their attendance records prove that the plan is working so far. In the process, Atlanta United have energized a city that has long been teased for its lukewarm support of professional sports. Should United keep advancing toward the MLS Cup, their formula for success may become the league’s new model.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly quoted Doug Roberson about South American players Gerardo Martino was able to call; he called Carlos Carmona, not Hector Villalba.