The story of American soccer’s growth is told in the Pacific Northwest, in ethnic communities, some college towns and in traditional urban centers from coast to coast. Increasingly, though, the sport has taken hold in unconventional locations.
On Saturday, pro attendance records fell not in Los Angeles, Seattle or New York but in Atlanta and Cincinnati.
At Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the brand new southern cradle for the NFL and Southeastern Conference football, first-year Atlanta United drew the largest crowd for a stand-alone MLS match in the league’s 22-season history (70,425).
It was not an anomaly. While awaiting completion of the marvelous structure, the club averaged more than 40,000 at Georgia Tech and attracted 45,314 and 42,511 for the first two matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is downsized for most MLS dates. On Saturday, the team opened the upper reaches for what turned into a wild, 3-3 draw with Orlando City.
Atlanta has scored 13 goals in three appearances at the new place, including a 7-0 blitz of nine-man New England on Wednesday.
Atlanta Coach Gerardo Martino, who previously guided FC Barcelona and the Argentine national team, said, “It’s clear that the fans have a fervent passion for soccer here — the same passion that our players have on the field.”
His team is on its way to ending Seattle’s eight-year reign as attendance champion and eclipsing the Sounders’ single-season record for average attendance, 44,247 two years ago. With about a month left in the regular season, Atlanta is averaging 47,926; Seattle is next at 43,400.
The U.S. pro soccer record: 47,856 by the star-laden New York Cosmos in 1978.
The MLS average this year is a league-high 21,700, with most teams in the 18,000 to 28,000 range at small- and medium-sized venues.
The previous MLS-exclusive record was 69,255 at the Rose Bowl for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s debut in 1996. The largest announced crowd was 92,650 for a 2006 doubleheader at the L.A. Coliseum comprising Chivas USA vs. New England Revolution and a friendly between FC Barcelona and Mexico’s Club America.
Several years ago, when MLS began weighing Atlanta’s expansion interest, there was genuine outside concern whether a city with a reputation for soft support for pro sports would turn out for soccer. With Arthur Blank, the wealthy owner of the NFL’s Falcons, investing in the expansion effort, Atlanta put those issues to rest early with a strong marketing campaign and robust season-ticket sales.
A quality product has helped. Martino and technical director Carlos Bocanegra, the former U.S. national team captain, assembled a stylish, entertaining squad that is second behind Toronto FC in scoring and, at 12-8-7, almost certain of qualifying for the playoffs. The only blemish: three defeats in three meetings with D.C. United, the Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers.
“This stadium will be the stadium of the year in our [sports] industry,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who attended Saturday’s match, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This team will be the team of the year. It ought to be. It’s proving that it’s defying everybody’s expectations as to what soccer can be in this market, what this stadium can look like.”
On Saturday night, the attendance spotlight turned to Cincinnati, not for a first-tier MLS match or international friendly but a regular season game in the second-division United Soccer League. A crowd of 30,417 for FC Cincinnati’s 4-2 victory over New York Red Bulls II set a league record and raised the club’s season average across all competitions to almost 22,000, which is better than all but six MLS teams.
FCC plays at Nippert Stadium, the University of Cincinnati’s football complex.
Until the team’s launch last year, Cincinnati had a scant soccer history compared to most other U.S. metro areas. But with FCC’s popularity, MLS is taking a hard look at the city’s expansion bid as part of plans to invite four additional cities: two by the end of this year and two more in 2018 or 2019, raising the total to 28.
Sacramento has made the strongest case among 12 candidates, while larger markets such as Detroit and Phoenix are in play as well.
In addition to the expansion fight, Los Angeles FC will begin play next year as MLS’s 23rd team and David Beckham’s Miami project has received conditional approval to join in the next few years.
Cincinnati’s interest in soccer is not limited to the USL team. On Tuesday, the U.S. women’s national team will visit for a friendly against New Zealand. As of Saturday, almost 28,000 tickets had been sold.
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