Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Editorial: Atlanta's Home Game Sale

Article by Anders Aarhus

[Editors Note: The views expressed in this article are the writer's opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of as a whole.]

Money talks. That’s the message two NASL clubs, the Atlanta Silverbacks and the Minnesota Stars, gave their (now disgruntled) supporters by agreeing to give up their home field advantage in the 3rd round of the US Open Cup in exchange for financial compensation.

Thanks to the Open Cup’s new format this year, which featured a random draw for third round games (the first round MLS clubs are introduced), Atlanta’s win Tuesday night over the Georgia Revolution meant that their opponent for the next round, the Seattle Sounders, would have to travel to Atlanta for the game. However, just minutes after the completion of the game, it was announced that the venue had changed and the game would now be held at the Sounders’ Starfire Sports Complex instead of Atlanta Silverbacks Park. Later it was also revealed that Minnesota Stars would be traveling to Sandy Utah instead of hosting Real Salt Lake for their 3rd round game.

The fan reaction was swift and hostile. Just check the comments on the announcement of the venue change on the Silverbacks’ Facebook page. There was outrage and disgust from the general soccer community as well, some criticizing the Silverbacks for letting their fans down while others lauded the Sounders for “cheating” and “buying” an undeserved home game.

On one hand you can argue by aggressively pursing the chance for home games, MLS clubs are showing commitment to both the Open Cup and their fan bases which is always good to see, especially in a tournament that hasn’t always been taken seriously by the big boys in American soccer. On the other hand there’s the argument that “buying” a home game shows a lack of respect and a disregard for the spirit of the competition. Whether or not you agree with the move by MLS clubs to “buy” these game, there are two bottom-line issues that are important to recognize.

1) This is the US Soccer Federation’s fault

2) Atlanta and Minnesota messed up big time

The USSF, who organize and run the tournament, have long favored a secret bidding process for games involving MLS teams because it allowed them to make the most money. After much scrutiny and pressure from the soccer community the format was changed this year to prevent “buying” games until the semi-final. Or so we thought. News broke this morning that the Portland Timbers had come to an agreement with Wilmington Hammerheads FC, one of their potential 3rd round opponents, to host the game if the Hammerheads won. Since Wilmington lost it’s a moot point as Portland automatically gets to host the 3rd round game, but it’s worth mentioning because before the Timbers’ announcement, it appears no one was aware paying to host a game was even a possibility. 

Now we know that the USSF has once again failed to deliver a fair and, more importantly, transparent draw/bidding process. For a tournament that’s supposed to model England’s Famed FA Cup giving top division sides an easy out from having to travel to a lower division side is disappointing.

As for the lower division clubs themselves, they’re in a tough situation. Although we can only speculate about what kind of compensation they received, common sense dictates, in addition to travel expenses, the teams probably got enough money to cover player wages for several months. From a financial standpoint this makes sense as lower division soccer in the US isn’t exactly a lucrative business and being given enough money to cover operating costs for a good chunk of the season seems too good to turn down. Except it should be turned down. Especially by Minnesota and Atlanta, two teams that have long dreamed of being MLS franchises and have made those desires public. 

Hosting a US Open Cup game against an MLS side would have been the perfect opportunity to build momentum for soccer in the area while simultaneously showing the commissioner and the league a potential market for a 20th MLS team. Worst of all is the missed opportunity for fans to support their team and see an MLS club play in person. By giving up their home games Atlanta and Minnesota sent the message that they consider money more important than their fan base.

If there’s anything positive to take from this it’s that entire situation has people talking and shows how much fans care about their squads. There hasn’t been this much chatter about the Open Cup for years; “Atlanta Silverbacks” was trending on twitter in Seattle for goodness sake.

That said, hopefully we’ll see a fairer format for the Cup in the future, because right now it’s about as one-sided as it gets.


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