Atlanta United before its last MLS regular season game against the Toronto FC at Mercedes-Benz… [+] Stadium on October 22, 2017, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The most intriguing matchup of the knockout round of the MLS playoffs is between Atlanta United and the Columbus Crew. Only one point separated the two teams in the Eastern Conference, with Atlanta finishing just ahead of the Crew. But the game has a very different dimension when viewed through the current fortunes of the two teams.
On one hand, we have Atlanta United, which became the first MLS expansion team to make the playoffs since the Seattle Sounders in 2009 and only the third ever. Playing in the magnificent Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta United twice broke the attendance record for a single-season game and set a new high-water mark for single-season ticket sales with close to 820,000 paying spectators.
Reward from the MLS head office came quickly when it was announced this week that Atlanta will host the 2018 MLS All-Star game.
Awarded an MLS franchise in the spring of 2014, Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank quickly built a first-class operation that hit the ground running when the team started to play this year.
Such has been the team’s success that it’s fair to say that Atlanta United is the “expansion face” that Major League Soccer wants to present to North America and the world.
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Longtime Columbus Crew supporters can only look on and remember the days when Major League Soccer officials pointed to the Crew as the face of the league.
The Crew was “the original” of the 10 teams that kicked off the inaugural Major League Soccer season in 1996, and over the last 20-plus seasons, the Crew has won the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup and picked up the Supporters’ Shield three times.
Lamar Hunt, the Crew’s initial owner, came to MLS as one of the greatest advocates for soccer in North America. Hunt’s soccer roots went back to the early ’60s, and he was one of the founders and team owners when the NASL was formed in 1968.
Hunt had experienced firsthand how detrimental it was to play in front of 20,000 spectators in stadiums built to accommodate many times more.
The Hunt family promised to build the first soccer-specific stadium in Columbus, and in 1999, before a sell-out crowd of 24,700, they delivered. The entire $28.5M cost was financed by the Hunts.
The US men’s national team has scheduled a number of key matches in Columbus over the last decade or… [+] so. (Photo credit PAUL VERNON/AFP/Getty Images)
<p>Since 1999, another 12 soccer-specific stadiums have been built, and another three will open in the next two years.
Ironically, the two teams that led in 2017 attendance share stadiums with NFL teams. But the Seattle Sounders (average in 2017: 43,666) and Atlanta United (48,200) both clearly understand that “managing the space” and ensuring a soccer atmosphere is key to developing a fan culture and game atmosphere.
The costs to build soccer-specific stadiums have grown considerably since the Columbus Crew took that first step two decades ago. To date, Red Bull Arena, which opened in 2010, is the costliest at $220M, but Audi Field, the new home of DC United, due to open in June, has a price tag of $300M.
Even with the most basic of designs, a new soccer-specific stadium built to hold 20,000 or so is going to cost at least $100M today.
Normal inflation accounts for some of the increase, but expectations have risen as well. Some of the amenities and revenue streams that might have been ignored two decades ago are expected by fans and owners.
And that brings us to the heart of the current Columbus Crew high-stakes stand-off. Anthony Precourt bought the Crew in 2013 for $68M, and despite selling the naming rights to the stadium and seeing average attendance grow from 2012 to 2016, the owner wants a new downtown stadium, financed by taxpayers.
When Precourt bought the Crew in 2013, he agreed to keep the team in Columbus for a period of 10 years but with one caveat. The get-out-of-jail card was that Precourt would be allowed to move the team to Austin within that window. If there was ever a case of a wilting canary in a coal mine, this was it.
For lo and behold, Precourt Sports Ventures issued a statement last week to say that “it was exploring strategic options to ensure the long-term viability of the club, including remaining in Columbus at a new stadium or potentially relocating the club to the city of Austin, Texas.”
*The owner then doubled down and announced that the team would not refund season-ticket purchases for the 2018 season should the move to Austin come to pass in 2019.
For the Columbus soccer community, the back-to-back statements were a clear indication that the owners were more interested in pursuing a scorched-earth policy than working with the community to ensure that the team stays where it is.
Major League Soccer’s stance has not helped matters either. MLS appears supportive of the Crew’s plan to play the Columbus and Austin communities off each other.
For a league that spends so much time talking about how important fans are to MLS and its future, it is impossible to view this position as anything but staggeringly hypocritical and cynical.
The sense of betrayal was only magnified when The Columbus Dispatch reported that “Austin FC” and “Austin Athletic” had been trademarked by MLS earlier this year.
The more optimistic of us may point to all of this as simply being a part of the cut and thrust of the negotiations process and believe a solution will be found to keep the Crew in Columbus.
The City of Columbus comes through with funding, Precourt agrees to sell to local interests (even if he has turned down a previous overture), MLS owners refuse to sanction the move — all are still possible.
Stranded in the middle are the Columbus Crew supporters. But rather than resigning to a feeling of impotence, the fans have instituted an aggressive “Save the Crew” campaign aimed at keeping the Crew where they should be by applying pressure on the politicians, the Crew owners, and other MLS owners.
Stats and Facts
Record in 2017
Atlanta United: W15, D 10, L 9; Points 55; Goals scored 70; Goals against 40
Columbus Crew: W16, D 6, L 12; Points 54; Goals scored 53; Goals against 49
Atlanta United: Josef Martinez, 19 goals
Columbus Crew: Ola Kamara, 18 goals
Atlanta United: total, 819,404 (ranked #1 of 22); average, 48,200
Columbus Crew: total, 262,469 (ranked #20); average, 15,439
Atlanta United: $8.9M (ranked #8)
Columbus Crew: $6.75M (ranked #15)
Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew starts at 7:00PM ET on Thursday, Oct. 26, and will be broadcast on ESPN 2 and UniMás in the U.S. and on TSN and TVA Sports in Canada.
Precedent for Moving
In 2006, the San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston and morphed into the Houston Dynamo. However, the marks, records, logo and team records “remained” in San Jose.
Two years later, the San Jose Earthquakes re-emerged under the ownership of Lew Wolff, and in 2015, the team moved into the newly built $100M Avaya Stadium.
Other Playoff Games
8:30PM ET: Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls on Fox Sports 1 and UniMás in U.S.; TSN 3+5 and TVAS in Canada
10:30PM ET: Vancouver Whitecaps vs. San Jose Earthquakes on UniMás and NBC Sports California in U.S.; TSN 1, 3, 4, 5 and TVAS2 in Canada
9:30PM ET: Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City on UniMás, KUBE Houston and Fox Sports KC in U.S.; TSN 4 and TVAS in Canada
Postscript – The Columbus Crew backtracked Wednesday afternoon on the issue of refunds – details here.