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Raising a Ruckus: The Death of Atlanta's inaugural MLS bid (Part 1)

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The full story of the Atlanta Ruckus and its place in Atlanta soccer history.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Next year, Atlanta will once again have a pro soccer team in our country’s top flight league. Most think this hasn’t happened since the Atlanta Chiefs in the original North American Soccer League in 1981. However, in the year before Major League Soccer launched in 1996, Atlanta was represented by the Ruckus in the American Professional Soccer League, better known as the A-League.

The Ruckus definitely lived up to their name, nearly dying before they even kicked off and then going through five owners in four years before becoming the Silverbacks. This is their story...

Part 1: In the beginning

As 1994 was getting underway, Atlanta was being considered for a founding team in the newly formed Major League Soccer. MLS was planning to kick off in April of 1995 and were getting ready to start their franchise bidding process. The Atlanta Sports Council, which serves as a recruiter for major sporting events in the Atlanta area, was leading that process. Ross Bartow, deputy executive director of the Council, said, "Maybe we didn't get the World Cup here, but we made the decision that this league is something we want to be involved with."

They had zeroed in on three possible stadiums to choose from by February: Bobby Dodd Stadium at Georgia Tech, DeKalb Memorial Stadium (now James R. Halford Stadium) in Clarkston, and a proposed 20,000 seat stadium at Life University.

The speculation in February pointed to Coca-Cola's presence in Atlanta. Alan Rothenberg, then President of the US Soccer Federation, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Doug Cress, ""The response from the Atlanta community has been terrific. It's been one of the quickest to respond positively. Atlanta just leaped right in there, and I'm sure Coke will want to be involved in an ongoing basis with Major League Soccer."

In March, direct mailings went out seeking season ticket deposits. These went out across the country in a similar fashion. The MLS-Atlanta "office" at that time was in the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce building downtown.

Meetings were being held in cities across the country as they tried to rally support for MLS franchises. In Pittsburgh, the local representative told fans that Atlanta would be in the league because the youth soccer association had bought 5000 tickets and Coca-Cola had bought 5000 tickets (reported by Steve Hegedus on the North American Soccer email list). Either this "pledge" fell through or was never true, but it shows the "Wild Wild West" nature of things in early 1994.

On April 14th, the Atlanta Sports Council hosted their own event to drum up support for their efforts to bring a franchise to Atlanta. Charlie Morgan (head coach of the Atlanta Magic of the USISL), Debbie Hackman (president, Georgia State Soccer Association), and Ed Mooney (vice-chairman, Georgia State Soccer Association) spoke to the assemble media about the potential for the franchise and the Atlanta soccer scene. Mooney was deeply involved in the Atlanta bid and talked about the deadline for bids coming up in May and the decision on the initial franchises expected in June. He also spoke about DeKalb Memorial Stadium being their preferred site. After meeting with Bill Sage from MLS, they drew up a plan to expand seating to 20,000 (from the current 15,000), removing the track to accommodate a wider field, and upgrading the press box and lighting.

Doug Cress reported on some concern in the AJC about Atlanta's chances coming from the league. "I see a cohesiveness in Atlanta as a result of the Olympics," said Bill Sage, chief operating officer of MLS. "A lot of different elements that normally would go their separate ways are working together, and that's a positive sign. But it's clear the focus right now in Atlanta is the Olympics."

MLS expected bidding cities to sell 10,000 season ticket "subscriptions", identify an interim stadium, and submit a plan to build a 30,000-35,000 seat soccer stadium. Atlanta planned to mail out more than 34,000 season ticket brochures using the Georgia State Soccer Association database.

22 cities submitted bids for Major League Soccer franchises in May. Outside of Florida, Atlanta was the only Southern city to submit a bid.

The World Cup came to the U.S. during the summer of 1994, but unfortunately games were not held in Atlanta. The city's bid to host games at Bobby Dodd Stadium failed in 1991. The tournament did generate lots of attention in Atlanta's international community, who staked out local bars and restaurants to watch their teams play.

The level of play in Atlanta was also being recognized. Future U.S. national team star Clint Mathis was named the Georgia High School Player of the Year. The Lovett School's boys team was named a National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) national champion, with Parkview High School ranking at number four. The GSSA reported a 20% growth in registered players from 1989 to 1994.

As the MLS announcement day loomed, hopes were high in Atlanta. Mooney told the AJC's Cress, "The door is open. I think the MLS really wants Atlanta. The question is whether we can give them what they want in time."

The biggest question was concerning a $7.5 million renovation plan for the preferred stadium choice of DeKalb Memorial Stadium. The project would not come up for approval before officials until later in June and MLS was not sure of its chances of success. "This whole thing sounds very exciting, of course," Frances Edwards, chairwoman of the DeKalb County Board of Education said. "We'll be moving as expeditiously and cautiously as possible. We have a responsibility to the taxpayers, and we're not looking at anything that would require public funding. To us, the stadium is a facility just like a school, and we have to study this proposal very carefully." There was another proposal in front of the school board to transform the stadium into a world-class track and field facility in order to be used for training ahead of the 1996 Olympics. Doyle Oran, the director of athletics and planning for DeKalb County, was sold on the track proposal. She told the AJC, "Soccer is growing in popularity, but it's difficult to say what kind of interest there is here for a professional franchise. It's tough to gauge. To tell the truth, the track and field [renovation] would be less expensive, but we're looking at both."

On June 15, MLS made its first franchise announcements. They only announced seven cities as opposed to the planned twelve, the remaining five cities were due to be announced later in the year. Boston, Columbus, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York/Long Island (later withdrawn), San Jose, and Washington were the cities awarded franchises. Atlanta was still in the running, but some issues with their bid were cited in the AJC. Tickets deposits that lagged behind other cities, lack of a dedicated ownership group, and stadium issues (not everyone was sold on transforming DeKalb Memorial Stadium into a major league venue) were specifically mentioned. "Atlanta is a very viable option for us, but they have some problems," said Major League Soccer's Sage. "They have to work harder on the ticket sales and they have to find a place to play. It's as simple as that." Mooney told the AJC, "It's very difficult to sell tickets because we couldn't tell them where the team would play. Memorial Stadium was only proposed in May, so we've really only been at it about a month."

For a comparison on the ticket sales, Columbus was reported to have passed 11,000 for the eventual Crew while Atlanta was still under 1,000. Mooney told the AJC, "My feeling is that we needed some more time and we got it. We have no control over the stadium situation right now, so we're going to concentrate on the ticket sales. We're going to do some advertising, hold a phone-a-thon, and see if we can't get local businesses to sponsor each game." It's interesting that while the Atlanta bid was having problems finding season ticket buyers, the Associated Press was reporting that Atlanta drew the highest local rating for the first US World Cup match against Switzerland.

After Atlanta missed out on the first round of announcements, Atlanta Magic head coach Charlie Morgan and Ed Mooney traded comments in the AJC. Morgan said, "Atlanta is a fickle sports town to a certain extent. There may be an initial interest, but unless [MLS] puts out a good product and goes out into the community, they may not get the support they need." Mooney responded, "This could only help Charlie and the Magic. They would be like a feeder team for the franchise, like a farm team in baseball. To be realistic, the Magic has a small stadium, no marketing and is a semi-pro team. The MLS franchise would be a first-class professional team." Morgan responded, ""It can only help the city if it's done correctly, but if it's done incorrectly it can only be a hindrance. All they have is an idea and a way to go about it, but it's all they really have. It's hard to support something that's just a dream."

Through the end of June and into July, some new plans for DeKalb Memorial Stadium popped up. There was a big push to renovate the stadium into a 22,000 seat soccer and track stadium for the upcoming 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The facility would be used by the proposed MLS team and by Olympic track teams. It was unclear as to how the wider field could be accommodated with the track layout.

In July, the AJC ran a large feature article about the multiple leagues looking at adding teams in Atlanta. The MLS and CISL bids were discussed, along with a new American Professional Soccer League bid. The APSL lost the opportunity to be designated the Division 1 league to MLS, but still had plans to compete with the new league. The Atlanta Sports Council was seeking local corporations to sponsor each of the twelve proposed home games for the inaugural MLS season.

MLS announced in August that it was delaying the announcement of the remaining five franchises to later in the year. Atlanta's bid continued on against ten other cities, but the hopes were dimming as the summer went on. On July 29th, the AJC reported that season ticket "subscriptions" were around 1,600. Bill Sage of MLS told the AJC's Doug Cress, "What I've told people in Atlanta is that I would not be optimistic. Right now we're sitting here without a great deal of information about funding in Atlanta, and we have to assume there isn't any. It doesn't look promising."

At the end of October, word started to get out that MLS would delay its start to 1996. Atlanta was still under consideration as a franchise location, but the stadium issue was starting to become a major problem. The planned renovations at DeKalb Memorial Stadium had hit a snag (and never ended up happening) and the bid did not have another location locked down. Bartow of the Atlanta Sports Council told the AJC, "They want to be in Atlanta for all the reasons we know, but a place to play is a concern. In 1996, there's going to be a lot going on in town, and scheduling of facilities is also an issue in the league. We've put in a strong bid, but we can understand them saying that maybe it's not right at this time. It might be 1997 before Major League Soccer comes to Atlanta."

On November 12th, Atlanta's hopes of becoming an inaugural member of Major League Soccer ended. The league announced that it would officially delay its first season until 1996. It also announced that it would launch with ten teams and Atlanta was not mentioned as being under consideration.

As Atlanta's MLS chances began to fizzle out, the APSL took advantage of the opportunity. While two other groups had entered into talks with the league, league commissioner William De La Pena announced that Atlanta Magic owner Sam Chase had been awarded a franchise in July. The plan was for the Magic to remain in the USISL and serve as a developmental squad for a new APSL team.

The Magic were coming off of an undefeated USISL indoor season and second consecutive championship in the 1993-94 season. Their outdoor season was solid too on the field, reaching the Southeast Division final before losing to the Cocoa Expos. They played their outdoor games at the old Roswell High School stadium owned by Vincent Lu (who we'll get to later).

Orlando Lions head coach Mark Dillon was hired as the general manager. He told Bill Buchalter of the Orlando Sentinel, "They are sending me to Europe in September to do some recruiting. The whole structure needs to be redefined for an Olympic city. Basically, my job is to coordinate the entire program." He told Buchalter that "the Atlanta team is in the process of negotiating purchase of its own stadium, taking over property of an existing stadium and doing major renovation to accommodate international soccer."

In October, Sam Chase announced that his new APSL team signed all time leading U.S. national team scorer Bruce Murray to a contract for the 1995 season. Murray spent the last two seasons with Millwall and Ayr United (Scotland). Also signed was Tajudeen Disu, former Nigerian youth international who was part of Nigeria's squad in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup. Mark Dillon, the team's general manager, detailed an extensive plan moving forward. The USISL Magic would continue as a developmental team for the APSL team. The indoor team would also continue in the USISL. Existing U19 boys and women's amateur teams would continue. Plans were made to add a men's amateur team and several more youth teams.

A few days after Atlanta's MLS chances officially ended, the new APSL team was named. Mark Dillon told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, "We wanted a name we could own and a name that would not appear anywhere else in professional sports. We wanted a name that is unique." The Atlanta Ruckus was definitely a unique name. "We believe this reflects the action and the commotion around the team," Dillon said. Soccer America reported that one of the names that had been under consideration was FC Atlanta.

The Ruckus name was unveiled at a press conference in the International Sports Plaza of the Apparel Mart. The color scheme of blue, black and silver was also unveiled. The team's slogan of "There's a Huge Ruckus Coming to Atlanta" was also released. New APSL commissioner Richard Groff told the AJC's Cress, "This team is the APSL's future. It's our future vision and our future model, and it will take us into a new and competitive era."

The Ruckus announced plans to play at Life University's proposed stadium, which was now downsized to 8000 seats. Unfortunately, the stadium would not be completed in time and the team would have to look elsewhere for a venue. Fans reported on the North American Soccer email list that they were being told the team planned to build its own stadium in 1996 on the north side of I-285. It's unclear how far the team ever got into these plans and where they specifically looked. The team was also negotiating with SportSouth (which eventually became part of the Fox family of regional sports networks) to televise games. There was talk about a $1.5M budget for the team and $300K allotted for marketing.

As 1994 came to a close, there was excitement about the Ruckus. The team was telling media and fans about its big plans of building a stadium, creating a full development system, and signing big names. Little did they know, 1995 would get off to a bumpy ride...