The Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United are in a bit of a whirlwind right now… one side is getting ready to play in the Roman Numeral Classic in Houston and the other, somewhat quietly, is hammering away trying to become the soccer version of the brotherhood- working at it like their football brethren at their own practice facility an hour north of town.
Soccer Down Here caught up with AMB Group CEO Steve Cannon. He gave us a few minutes to catch everyone up on the guys about to break through the banner for the first time in a little over two weeks.
JN: The news came out earlier today, 27,000 season tickets, how cool is that?
SC: It’s incredible. We knew there was an interest in soccer in the Southeast. And we had some really encouraging early signs that it was going to be robust and we could be one of the top season ticket-selling teams in MLS. But to be second in the league only to the (Seattle) Sounders while our team is on the pitch only for its second day down in Bradenton getting ready to go… it’s exciting.
JN: Because, to use one of Darren Eales’ terms combating the notion that Atlanta isn’t a soccer town and the south isn’t interested in soccer… the thought seems “crackers” with that number out there now… Has it sunk in where you are right now and having the numbers where they are for season tickets?
SC: It still feels a little bit surreal. It is sinking in that we had a plan and it’s now culminating that the team is on the pitch going through drills and they’re starting to gel. As a matter of fact, I just got off the phone with Darren a few minutes ago and I said: “Are you building a Brotherhood down there?” He said they’re on their way. He is starting to see the same kinds of things with what Coach Quinn is building with the Falcons. It’s really neat.
And give credit to Arthur to erring on the side of bringing someone on too early rather than thinking about cost control and being a start-up franchise for MLS. He leaned into this and thought about having Darren Eales in two years early and having a Technical Director like Carlos Bocanegra in almost 18 months early. In every instance (Arthur) has understood the infrastructure and been ahead of the power curve just from a planning and execution standpoint.
Now you’re starting to see where it’s paying dividends. You see where we have started early and we’re doing a great job.
JN: And the way the team is being assembled is in more of a European model- where you are investing in players, bringing them in and will, probably, be sent to teams in the future the way they were brought in. It’s not a model that other MLS franchises are taking in assembling their teams here in this model of MLS 3.0. The prevailing opinion is that Atlanta United isn’t messing around.
SC: I think as we have talked about who we are and who we want to be, we really want to be the most globally-oriented MLS team in the league. The team we’ve brought together from Coach to Darren to Carlos has recognized it’s a global competition for talent and you’ve got to play in that global pool. I think that’s where Darren and his perspective syncs with Carlos and the coaches. They’ve been executing on that model and they’re re-writing the standard MLS execution model and it is something seen more over in Europe.
So, I think it’s been great in a lot of ways.
JN: Because, LAFC has mentioned in a lot of ways that they’re seeing what Atlanta United is doing and saying that they want to build in the same ways Atlanta United is building.
SC: We’re happy to be a poster child. (Commissioner) Don Garber even said that we’re a poster child of how we expand and how you should grow with MLS. We’re in a position right now where a “rising tide raises all boats,” so we’re happy to give LA the playbook on how we have enriched the market. Because if we can get other folks doing that, we can all put a better product on the field and connect with our fan base in a more significant way.
The league is going to grow along with it. The TV deals will grow along with it and the economics of soccer in the United States- which trail the economics of other leagues around the world- will change and get into that virtuous cycle.
JN: Darren has used a word in this whole build that resonates- “pioneer.” He wants people around him with a pioneer spirit… a pioneer attitude… who want to be a part of all this and have that mindset going in…
SC: Hey, for Darren and all of us, it’s fun being a part of something that’s a clean sheet. I feel like it this way. When we had the idea for Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we didn’t say, “Let’s just look at the last football stadium that was built and do that… copy and paste and make a few upgrades.” We said, “Clean sheet of paper… how do we build the best sports and entertainment complex in the world around the expectations of our fan base?” And that’s how we’re taking the same mindset and building Atlanta United.
JN: So, what’s the next markers between now and the first exhibition game on February 11th?
SC: Right now, it’s about finding a chemistry with the team. It was a little prescient about going down to Bradenton, actually. We had conversations about having the team start out training in Flowery Branch, but what with happened with the Falcons’ success we couldn’t do that. With all the hype and energy going around the organization, for Atlanta United being focused in their own little bubble, I think that’s really important. They need to be able to gel and be a team. So, for us, we’ve got Chattanooga and the tournament in Charleston and they’re markers coming up fast.