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Atlanta United prove they are serious about being top club in MLS

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One of two elements by themselves don't show the level of commitment by the front office and ownership. But all together, Atlanta United could be a force that competes beyond MLS.

Paras Griffin/Getty Images

I devote too much time on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit looking for the latest Atlanta United rumors and conversation. I like to think I have a good reason for doing so. I like to be current on all the discussions surrounding the team and its supporters. But, I also do this so that I’m informed on the thoughts and opinions on Atlanta United from the MLS community as a whole.

One of the more noticeable discussions (other than the same Minnesota FC and Orlando City fans spreading the usual hate) has been whether an NFL owner in Arthur Blank will take MLS ownership as seriously as the other MLS teams. It’s an understandable concern, as the New England Revolution are self-described by their own fans as a poorly run organization specifically because of their owner, Robert Kraft. Some have said the Seattle Sounders had their own issues their first few years under the Seattle Seahawks umbrella, but those problems have not hovered over the club like with the Revs.

The instant perception from outside the Southeast region (as AUFC is uniting the entire Southeast) was that another NFL-owned MLS club would yield another poorly run organization that would simply be viewed as a nice accessory to their overall brand. Although conventional wisdom suggests that would be the case, the recent announcements and behind-the-scenes moves seem to provide a different narrative.

To begin, I’ll briefly list the aspects of AUFC that we’ve already covered extensively on Dirty South Soccer that show the club shouldn’t be overlooked or considered just another NFL-owned franchise:

- Hiring European president and supporting Darren Eales with people who have general understanding of MLS

- Building an NFL and MLS-centric stadium with soccer in mind (Blank could’ve saved money solely focusing on NFL side of things)

- New England and Seattle are just tenants in an NFL-focused stadium, while Atlanta United's needs will be fully considered

- Front office staff is consistently shown within the Atlanta/Georgia community

- Partnering with a USL club in Charleston Battery, a team with a reputation for producing MLS talent

- Indications that season ticket sales are eclipsing those of past expansion teams

While great, these things alone don’t change opinions. Yet, the early establishment and physical manifestation of the youth academy and scouting process for Atlanta United are strong indications that Arthur Blank won’t allow AUFC to be a bullet point underneath the Atlanta Falcons. I can’t definitively tell you which MLS clubs run their franchise best, but I can tell you which teams fail take their academies and franchise seriously. Once described, it should be easy to notice the difference in approach between Atlanta United and current MLS teams, even teams that were there at the start of MLS.

D.C. United

The D.C. club partner their U12, U13 and U14 academies with a private school called The Calverton School. Tuition for that school according to Black and Red United was $20,250 as of last year. They also charged $1,500 per player for their U15/16/17/18 players and $2,500 for their U13/14. So needless to say, D.C. United operates on some level by utilizing pay-for-play. Additionally, Soccerwire.com reported last year that the club was set for a round of changes for the 2015-16 season, "including funding cuts and the departure of key staff members."

Their plan to cut funds anywhere they can is a strange one especially when they planned to make their U15/16/17/18 teams free of charge for 2015-16. DC United also haven’t turned out a first-team player outside of Bill Hamid in quite some time and, according to their website, no longer have a U23 team in their program.

D.C.’s stadium situation is equally as abysmal as the academy program. On more than one podcast, I’ve heard of pest and vermin infestations around the park. In one Washington Post article, Steven Goff lists the different animals that have been seen and complained about at RFK Stadium.

"You’ve heard about raccoons, birds, rats, cats, cockroaches, and wasps. Add another creature to the legend of RFK: bats."   - Steven Goff, Washington Post

RFK Stadium is old and in desperate need of a renovation, possibly straight up demolition. The stadium is 55 years ago in 1961 and originally the home of the Washington Redskins, the Washington Senators (now the Texas Rangers) and the Washington Nationals until they moved to Nationals Park in 2008. It’s not a soccer, football or baseball stadium, but instead, a multipurpose venue. DC United are the only MLS team to play in the original stadium they debuted in. While you can attribute staying in RFK for as long as they have to the stadium being a historical venue, fans and pundits have all come out and said DC United desperately needs a new stadium.

A new stadium is in the works for DC United and should be completed by 2018, but this should’ve happened a long time ago. The club’s management has a frugal mentality when it comes to spending money on players and has been regarded as dysfunctional by even its own supporters.

NYCFC

NYCFC is fun to talk about because the club has neither a stadium nor a functioning academy program. Well, I guess technically I should say they have an academy program that only consists of U13/14s. Instead of a full-blown academy program, NYCFC affiliated themselves with eleven youth soccer clubs around the greater New York City area. The sentiment from NYCFC was that the older age groups would be developed and added in the future as the younger academy players aged.

NYCFC also doesn’t have a stadium and are into their second year as an MLS franchise. Forced to play in the Yankee Stadium outfield, rumors have begun to surface that a new stadium could be in the works for 2018. Populous, an architectural firm responsible for building Yankee Stadium and in charge of Orlando City and DC United’s future stadiums, recently bought new offices in Manhattan. NYCFC also hired a new president for a role more concerned with business than the day-to-day soccer environment sending the NYCFC Twitter world into a frenzy of speculation.

New England Revolution

Because Atlanta United is owned by an NFL owner, we will always be lumped together with the Seattle Sounders and New England Revolution. The Sounders are a well-run soccer organization. Ownership has found a good balance and dedicated resources and money to making sure the Sounders flourish modestly. On the other hand, Robert Kraft has treated the Revs like his red-headed step-child. While the article is from 2014, the reputation stuck to Kraft’s ownership is exemplified in this excerpt:

Another ex-player with close ties to the organization sums it up: "The reputation of the Revolution is that they’re cheap." He mentions a story of the team, a few years ago, having to make two connections on their flight to a game. It’s a little thing, but it sends a signal. "It’s stuff like that that gives you the rep among the players and the fans," the ex-player says. "They don’t hold their breath that the Revs will ever get a legit DP. Not when you know you’re second on the totem pole within your own organization." - Kevin Alexander, Boston Magazine

While I can’t promise the Atlanta United will take direct, first-class flights to away matches, the training academy alone should destroy any argument that Atlanta United will be just another NFL-owned franchise. Unlike Robert Kraft, who has passed the club on to his son, Jonathan, Blank has been extremely visible at Atlanta United functions and seems genuine in his desire for a successful team in 2017. While he has said the operational aspects of Atlanta United will be mostly left up to the front office, it takes effort and dedication to hire the staff that currently encompasses Atlanta United.

As bad as the owner situation is for the Revs, the stadium situation may be even worse. New England plays at Gillette Stadium in Boston on similar turf that every other NFL stadium plays on. Wait, am I talking about the Patriots? That’s what you would think if you walked into a Revs home game. No signage or team emblems, and nothing Revs-related other than the fan-made tifos and banners placed in the supporter section. Instead, every inch of the stadium screams New England Patriots.

I could continue with teams like Chicago Fire and Colorado Rapids but I believe everyone is familiar enough with those organizations to know that Atlanta United has arguably matched, if not surpassed those teams’ relevance and seriousness with just their academy actions and training ground renderings. So now, let’s dive into the intricacies of what Atlanta United has done right, starting with season tickets.

Season Tickets

We’ve heard the 29,000 season ticket deposit number thrown around time and time again. In his most recent radio interview, Darren Eales mentioned those deposits had exceeded 30,000. While I understand that those are season ticket deposit as opposed to actual season tickets, every indication from the Atlanta United front office and the experience of people buying season tickets have expressed that the only reason people aren't converting their deposits to season tickets are because they've moved out of the state.

The team has already expressed that they'll do everything in their power to make sure as many of those deposits are converted into actual season tickets. If they achieve 80 percent conversion, that would be 24,000 season tickets. Remember, Atlanta United still hasn't hired a manager, signed a designated player or even released a kit yet. It's to be expected that a decent portion of potential season ticket holders are waiting for the signings to occur before diving into the season ticket pool themselves. I also expect season tickets to continue to increase once the season starts and we've seen an actual product on the field. If Atlanta United reached 29,000 actual season ticket sales, the club would probably surpass Orlando City in average attendance last year. OCSC finished second in average attendance, averaging 32,847 over 17 matches.

The season ticket numbers even impressed national MLS pundits:

And we still have 10 months to go...

Atlanta United's Academy

Will Parchman recently wrote an article for TopDrawerSoccer.com that revealed the way Atlanta United has set itself up to have an elite academy in MLS from day one. Parchman even went as far as calling the moves the club has made as a major coup:

Atlanta United has been in technical control of Georgia United’s U16 and U18 teams, both of which are on track to make the playoffs this June. Georgia United may still be the name on the crest, but every one of its players are banking minutes toward Homegrown status according to Annan. If the math works out, Atlanta United could conceivably pull off a major coup and sign the 16-year-old Carleton to a Homegrown deal before playing its first official match. - Will Parchman, TopDrawerSoccer.com

There are as many as four USYNT players within the Atlanta United academy system right now. These are also players the Atlanta United academy manager, Tony Annan, developed while with Georgia United. He now has the same role within the MLS club under the direction of Youth Academy Director Richard Money, who has a history of developing youth players for Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Coventry City, as well as coaching first teams with Luton Town, AIK Sweden, and Cambridge United.

When it comes to the day-to-day interactions and coaching of players, Annan, a respected name within Georgia soccer, will be the one developing and coaching the future of Atlanta United. He has local ties and understands the intricacies of working with kids in the current southern soccer environment. Annan's connections alone could make him one of the most valuable hires for the academy.

Then there's Money - a European influence that can guide the academy through a more English/Euro style of development. He brings experience and an established reputation to a club that understands the limitations of MLS but also wants to replicate the success Money has had overseas.

It's a beautiful mix of domestic and foreign influence to a team that's thinking long-term, global recognition.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Training Ground

I know it's not soccer specific. I get that. I'm also over that.

Arthur Blank had soccer in mind when he chose the design for The Benz. The common misconception is that Atlanta United will be playing in a football stadium. I mean, in a sense, yes, it's true. But, it would've been easy for Blank to forgo the soccer aspects of the stadium and focus solely on football. The turf is where this will be most evident. It's not the same hard turf that we've grown accustomed to in our everyday lives. This will play closer to natural grass than any turf we've seen before. While not ideal, it's the best possible compromise when your owner also owns an NFL team.

Also, you'd better believe that Atlanta United won't suffer the same fate in their stadium as New England does in theirs. The co-opting and resource sharing the club and the Atlanta Falcons have already been involved with shows that The Benz will be as much Atlanta United's as it is the Falcons. That's not the case for the Revs, NYCFC, and Orlando City.

Let's also take into account the training facility. Less than a month ago, RSL Soapbox revealed that Real Salt Lake aimed to spend $45 to $50 million for their local academy and training grounds. That level of investment in youth development was praised across the league. Two weeks later, Atlanta United revealed their plan for their own $60 million training facility. More national MLS media pundits were impressed.

You don't invest that much money into development unless you are serious about being a force in the league. I'm not privy to what would've needed to occur for Atlanta United to attain a simple partnership with Georgia United but that would've been far easier than building an entire complex for your first team and academy. That level of investment is for long-term, possibly global, success.

Let me be clear: I don't believe that spending money and making hires directly equates to wins. Those two things are a small portion of the overall combination of things that contribute to on-the-field success. But, I'm convinced that Arthur Blank, Darren Eales and the rest of the ownership and front office are serious about competing in MLS and making Atlanta United a recognized team beyond its domestic league. I believe you'll see a dedication to competing in every conceivable competition and level the club can take part in both domestically and internationally.

The next two elements that  show how serious Arthur Blank, Darren Eales, and Carlos Bocanegra are will come in the form of designated players and a coach. We wait ever so patiently for that day....