Wiebe: Ambition, admiration connect Atlanta and Seattle

The Seattle Sounders did not invent soccer, and they most certainly did not invent Atlanta United. Yes, that sentence was mostly tongue-in-cheek.

We all knew the comparisons were inevitable. Thanks to the crowds, the big-name stars, the NFL connections and a similar brand of paradigm-shifting ambition, Seattle and Atlanta are inextricably linked, the former’s eye-opening MLS entry in 2009 serving as equal parts inspirational and informative for the latter’s colorful arrival on the scene this year.

That connection will be front and center when the two clubs meet for their first and only 2017 regular-season matchup on Friday at CenturyLink Field (10 pm ET; FS1 in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada). Neither club is shy about acknowledging the similarities or mutual admiration between the two. If anything, it’s outright flattery from both.

“Seattle are the gold standard of the expansion teams that have come into this league,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales told me this week. “They were clearly someone for us to look at and see what did right, things what might work for us and how we could learn from their experience.”

When Eales took the Atlanta job in Sept. 2014, he’d already done his homework. He knew the Sounders’ success story well from his time at Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League, and he knew Seattle’s MLS entry would, in many ways, parallel Atlanta’s own expansion journey.

That started with scope — namely, stadium size and the club’s place within a larger organization alongside an NFL team. But it also spoke to Atlanta’s aspirations. Like Seattle in 2009, Eales hoped Atlanta might help drive the entire league forward. He knew owner Arthur Blank wasn’t afraid to dream big, nor was he afraid of significant investment. 

“Our ambition is to be one of the top clubs in MLS,” Eales said. “We’re on a journey where MLS is only going to get stronger and stronger. There’s been a lot of talk about whether MLS is going to become one of those top leagues. It clearly is going to happen; it’s just a matter of time.”

That’s easy to say in 2017. It was a scenario much harder to imagine eight years ago when the Sounders took a very different Major League Soccer by storm.

Like Atlanta, Seattle have never been shy about their own ambitions – finally adding the ultimate prize, MLS Cup, to their trophy case last December. And though they’re technically competitors, there’s a collegial vibe between the two clubs. Majority owner Adrian Hanauer remembers fondly the visits Eales and his team made to the Pacific Northwest, and he can’t help but smile when he sees the soccer story unfolding 2000 miles away.

“It’s been awesome to observe. You could tell early on that Atlanta were going to be successful,” Hanauer told me. “My guess is that they’re blowing away even their own ambitions and estimates of how things would go, which is reminiscent of 2009 for me. To me that speaks to how high we can really set our goals and how high we can shoot as clubs and as a league as we continue to grow and chase the big leagues around the world.”

Make no mistake, Atlanta would like to be a model future expansion clubs look to when they begin to imagine what heights they should aim for in Year One and beyond. It’s still very early, of course, but it’s clear from the scene on the ground – and the butts in the seats – that the lessons gleaned from the Sounders took hold and perhaps even taken a step further.

Seattle shocked many when they started the 2009 season with crowds of 32,523; 28,548; and 28,746 on their way to setting an MLS attendance record. Atlanta’s more than matched that in their first two games at Bobby Dodd Stadium, with an opening day throng 55,297 strong followed up by 45,922 at their second home match, to take in a 4-0 win against the Chicago Fire.

The latter will move into Mercedes-Benz Arena in late July, where the soccer configuration was originally designed for just under 30,000 fans. That is, until Atlanta United sold more season tickets than there were seats, forcing the club to up and the capacity at Mercedes-Benz to between 40,000 and 42,000 for MLS. There’s also the possibility of opening the entire stadium for marquee matches.

“The ultimate goal is that on day we’d like to be sold out, the whole bowl, for every game and have 70,000,” Eales said. “That has to be aspiration for us and the league as a whole.”

Eales is quick to emphasize that while he’s thrilled by the crowds Atlanta have drawn and the potential Mercedes-Benz Arena holds, he’s more encouraged by the pride and personal investment that have defined the club’s support since day one.

Terminus Legion and the countless others packing the stadium and following along closely have had plenty to cheer about so far. Though a 2-1 loss to the Red Bulls on opening day stung, Atlanta followed that up with a 6-1 win in snowy Minnesota and that 4-0 victory over the Fire.

Eales knows that success can’t be undersold. The newness of an expansion season won’t last forever, and when that fades away, on-field success must be there to fill the void.

As he conducted deep dives into previous expansion projects while charting Atlanta’s path into the league, Eales read Authentic Masterpiece, a book detailing the Sounders’ entry into MLS and inaugural season. A quote therein from an Emerald City Supporters club member stuck with him.

“It was something like, ‘To this day, I don’t know what would have happened if Seattle Sounders had come out like an expansion team.’ By that, he meant a typical expansion team that didn’t do well on the pitch,” Eales said. “For me, that was something really important … That’s something we’ve strived for at Atlanta United, to put our resources and our thought into being successful from day one.”

Resources haven’t been an issue, and so far neither have results. Atlanta would love nothing more than to replicate the Sounders’ immediate success and playoff berth in their first MLS season, the last expansion team to accomplish that feat.

They know that won’t be easy, but early signs are encouraging. Eales, technical director Carlos Bocanegra, director of soccer operations Paul McDonough ,and head coach Tata Martino, an ambitious signing himself, built a deep squad. It’s peppered with star power, MLS experience, and talented young players that have Atlanta hopeful of replicating the Sounders’ playoff push.

Meanwhile, strong performances from Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, and Josef Martinez — who has five goals in three games but suffered an injury on international duty with Venezuela — are justifying the transfer fees and salaries the club paid to land three South American attackers age 23 or younger.

Could the trio change the Designated Player mold and force executives to think about how they spend their DP dollars and the profile of player who fits the bill? Hanauer thinks Atlanta’s approach – young, high-profile DPs who require up-front investment but promise future profit – represents a trend more and more teams will begin to follow.

“Everyone is paying attention to what everyone else is doing. No one wants to get left in the dust,” Hanauer said. “No doubt those young players provide excitement, youthful exuberance, and energy that the fans are feeding off of. I love that they’re pushing the envelope and making people look at different ways of building a team.”

Ultimately, like the Sounders, Atlanta’s legacy will have many tentacles. But the underlying theme will be similar. In pushing the envelope, the rest of the league will have no choice but to take notice and access their own path to success.

Just like Seattle changed the face of MLS in 2009, Atlanta’s ambition and scale will set the tone for the present and future of MLS and the way future expansion franchise approach their own entry in the years to come.

“Our aim is to be one of the top MLS clubs, so as the league grows and gets bigger, we become one of those clubs that’s world famous,” Eales said. “That’s nothing to be bashful about or shy about.”

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