Atlanta United: What Does its Success Mean for MLS and US Soccer?

By @k2thedubs


Atlanta United just completed the most successful inaugural season in MLS history. The team set league-wide attendance records, played attractive, attack-minded soccer (a rarity in MLS), and created the blueprint for MLS clubs to emulate.

Is Atlanta United’s success a cause for concern or celebration for MLS?

While the league rejoices and calls Atlanta United “the biggest story in pro sports”, I believe the opposite is true. I believe Atlanta United’s success is an indictment of MLS and the closed system of US soccer. In one year, they proved themselves to be one of the league’s best teams and achieved something that less than a handful of teams can assert – a clear identity and style of play. All in less than twelve months.

Imagine if Portland formed a baseball team and was contending for the World Series in year one. What does that say about the league and its model that a newcomer can supplant the incumbent competition in less than one year?

And the most troubling part – Atlanta is not unique. They followed a basic formula that is easily replicated. If there was a soccer team from scratch starter kit, they simply followed the manual. Find a wealthy owner willing to spend money. Check. Hire experienced soccer professionals to run the day-to-day operations. Check. Bring in a qualified manager. Check. Purchase young, high-quality South American players. Check. Fill in the roster with veterans with MLS experience. Check. Invest in youth development and facilities. Check. Create a captive fanbase with community outreach programs. Check.

There’s no fairy dust or magic potion involved. The recipe is straightforward and reproducible. My question is why were these stakeholders (players, coaching staff, administration, fans, etc…) deprived of this experience for twenty years? Absent a unilateral decision from MLS headquarters, none of Atlanta’s success exists. That is frightening. The system is backwards.

Shouldn’t any city be afforded this opportunity? Why are dozens and dozens of clubs (not to mention billions of dollars in investment) being denied the right to participate and compete? Why does MLS, under the permission of US Soccer, artificially stifle growth of soccer in this country? They treat soccer as if it is this fragile thing, incapable of withstanding any bumps or hiccups

But look at MLS’ progress over the past decade. I’d argue that nearly all the meaningful progress is attributable to expansion. Ten years ago, the following list of teams did not exist in America’s top division – Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, Philadelphia Union, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact, New York City FC, Orlando City, Minnesota United, and Atlanta United.

I think the brass at MLS headquarters are afraid of ceding control. Right now, they are the gatekeepers. Under an open system, they lose their power. They speak of protecting soccer in this country and growing at their determined pace, but, frankly, it’s a noose around the neck of soccer’s potential in America. There is no valid reason[1] for not formulating a plan to institute promotion and relegation outright within the next five years or so. The demand is there. The investment is there. The cities are there. There are kinks to be worked out, but they are manageable.

MLS believes it can help address US Soccer’s failures through mandating certain amounts of domestic players or youth players on its rosters. However, there is no substitute for organic growth. Soccer happens at the grassroots level and infuses itself as part of the culture. It is built from the bottom up; not from the top down. An open ecosystem is the environment that cultivates that growth. No amount of scouting networks or MLS directives will solve that.

There are so many underserved and untapped communities vying to join the party, but MLS shuts the door on them. Imagine the momentum soccer could build if every community (i.e. Stockade FC) who wants to form a team is allowed to do so. Nobody is asking for a handout. Clubs are willing to start from the bottom rung. They are just looking for a chance because the chance, no matter how remote, of glory is all it takes – it is the energy force that propels an ecosystem.

The spillover effects of an open system are massive. It takes only one example of success to fan the hopes of a nation. A kid in Des Moines, a coach in El Paso, and a fan in Hartford may each commit to the sport if they see the possibility of gain that a free market permits. Under the current’s system design, what is the incentive for them to devote their time, energy and support to soccer in America? Stockade FC is the exception, not the rule, in a closed system. In an open market, the playing field is leveled and anyone has the potential to rise to the top. Stockade FC’s would become the norm and pop up all over the country.

Perhaps if an open ecosystem existed, sophisticated American soccer investors would not choose to invest in Europe over the United States. Steve Nash, Kyle Martino, and Stuart Holden invested, as part of an ownership group, in Mallorca, a second division side in Spain.  Martino, on his decision-making process, stated, “Stu and I sat for all of five seconds before we decided, ‘Yeah, we want to be involved in this’”.

Why such a quick decision? Why was it a no-brainer? It’s simple – the possibility of competition at the highest level. The irresistible allure of promotion to the first division and competing against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid and fighting for a spot in the Champions League. Martino added, “this is a La Liga club that just, for whatever reason, in recent history hasn’t performed well. We saw that as an opportunity.”

Opportunity. Opportunity is everything. And equal opportunity is what it’s all about. In every other soccer-playing country in the world, promotion and relegation exists. Clubs compete on the field (not in the boardroom) to see who rises to the top and who falls to the bottom.

How many other Atlanta United’s are out there? MLS has been consistently surprised at expansion results, both positively and negatively. Why let them decide? They have neither the expertise nor wherewithal to do so (hint: no one can do this – that’s why we let the market decide). Why not open the system and allow the clubs to determine it on the field? How many opportunities are missed because of the limited opportunity set inherent in our closed structure? Think about what Atlanta United is going to do for soccer in Georgia. Now think of all the communities that are starved of this growth potential.

In closing, I ask the following. Please answer honestly. Is soccer better off under our current system where market access is restricted except for an arbitrary selection process or a free market system like the one Nash, Martino, and Holden chose to invest in?

[1] Re-reading this article is eye-opening. Every time Garber uses the word “very” is an attempt to mislead. His statements do not address any of the substance of promotion and relegation. He speaks as if this is some unproven concept that isn’t employed by every other soccer-playing country in the world.


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