Atlanta is Doing Soccer Right

In 2017, the MLS added two new expansion clubs to bring the league up to 22 teams at the time. The two teams, Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC, arrived in the midst of push to expand the MLS to 26 teams by 2020. Minnesota took a seemingly slow and steady approach, in 2017 they had the 18th highest payroll at around $5.6 million. It’s an approach we see by expansion teams all the time. Other teams have a huge head start, so why try to jump to the front of the line when a new team can slowly build up a solid foundation before pushing for a championship. That’s good logic for someone entering the highly competitive NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL (just don’t tell that to Vegas). The chances of fighting for glory are already low, the chances that a new franchise is just going to pick it up right away is near absurd.

However, the MLS is different because the MLS sucks. It is not the be-all-end-all of its sport like the other leagues are. There is so much room for improvement across the board that anyone with the right moves can make leaps and bounds in the league. There is also an expansive talent pool that exists outside the MLS. No need to swindle trades or wait for the draft because the better talent is almost always abroad. Someone just needs to be willing to spend a little to tap into the wealth of talent in soccer. Enter Atlanta.

Unlike their expansion counterparts, Atlanta did not want to wait around to be successful. In their inaugural season, Atlanta trotted out a roster that already had the 8th highest payroll. They accomplished that by writing out three of the biggest checks in MLS transfer history, including the highest transfer ever in the league. Atlanta United FC paid over $14 million in transfer fees to bring in Hector Villalba, Miguel Almirón, and Josef Martínez. One thing to note is the MLS’s reputation as a retirement league, where old European stars come to play against lesser talent. It’s how players like David Villa, Kaká, Sebastian Schweinsteiger, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have all been able to continue their careers long after their prime. However, Atlanta avoided all of that and paid top dollar for players who were 22/23 when they were signed. On top of that Atlanta was able to bring in Gerardo “Tata” Martino as their head coach. Before coming to the MLS he coached Barcelona and the Argentinian National Team, a resume the league had never seen before.

So did it work?

Well, in 2017 Minnesota finished 9th in the Western Conference and missed the playoffs. They stuck to the build-it-up-from-the-ground mentality the following offseason, this time finishing 10th in the West. Atlanta began their franchise history with a 4th place finish in the East, before ultimately exiting in the first round via penalties. Josef Martínez poured in 19 goals, good for fourth in the league. Unsatisfied with their finish, they once again broke the bank to bring in a star. This time, they smashed the old transfer fee record (which they just set) by spending $15 million to bring in 18-year-old midfielder Ezequiel Barco. Apparently spending money is good for you because they improved to second in the East, falling two points behind the Red Bulls in the Conference and in the Supporters’ Shield race. This time Martínez led the MLS with 31 goals, breaking the all-time single season MLS record. They also breezed through the playoffs up to this point and are in the MLS Cup Finals.

They don’t just dominate the standings, as they have been murdering the attendance records as well. Give credit to Atlanta fans because boy do they show up, though it helps to have a product on the field that is actually pleasant to watch. In both years of their existence they led the league in average attendance, toppling the Sounders who were consistently on top. They also hold the top SEVEN single game attendance records. The former record had been in place since 1996. Now you can go around saying it’s because of the large capacity stadium that they share with the Falcons, but people still have to fill up the seats, and they fill them up in droves. In addition, they hold the top three single game attendance records for playoff games. They have only ever played in three playoff games. They haven’t even been to the finals, and people still buy tickets to watch them. I mean just look at this…

One would think that this was Camp Nou during El Clasico or something. Three games, three attendance records, each one beating the last.

It’s not like this showed up out of nowhere, someone has to actually be writing these checks. That man is Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and as of 2017 Atlanta United FC. As an NFL fan, it was fun watching the New England Patriots blindside this idiot as he stood on the sideline at Super Bowl LI watching his team fall apart. Robert Kraft would go on to claim his fifth title while Blank had to stand there with the confetti falling for the Patriots. As an MLS fan, though, Arthur Blank blows Kraft and every other MLS owner out of the water. Kraft hasn’t paid for a good player since Jermaine Jones in 2014. Jones brought them to the Finals, but when he asked to be paid, Kraft shipped him to Colorado. Blank, on the other hand, understands that if you want to make money, you need to spend money. It’s working. The product on the field is great, and the people want to see it. I have full respect for this man and his ability to own a soccer team, and I hope other owners begin to see the lucrative side of soccer.

Atlanta United FC, in their second season, are in the MLS Cup Finals on Saturday the 8th against the Portland Timber, the 2015 champs. I am hardcore rooting for Atlanta because I want teams to see that what Atlanta is doing is working. It might be nice to slowly build up one’s academy and sign young homegrown players in hopes of building a solid foundation. But in a country whose youth just isn’t that good and in a league that is just waiting for someone to jump to the top, the better option might just be doing what Atlanta is doing. It’s worked with other teams, too. New York City FC signed aging stars Andrea Pirlo and David Villa and they are always in the top of the standings. The newest team, LAFC, had the third highest payroll this season and achieved the fifth best record and eight highest average attendance. It does not take a whole lot to be competitive in this league, and the talent to do so certainly exists. Atlanta is an example that an exciting soccer team will bring in excited soccer fans. Soccer is a universally loved sport, but no one in the U.S. seems to be getting it. Atlanta, however, is doing soccer right.

World Cup Knockout Stage Predictions

Round of 16

Uruguay vs Portugal

Boy oh boy did things turn sour quick for the Portuguese last Monday. Heading into stoppage time, they were set to play Russia on the clearly weaker side of the bracket, but Iran clawed back and so did Spain. So here we are: Suarez vs Ronaldo. Uruguay vs Portugal. This is one of the more evenly matched games in the Round of 16, and I predict this to go back and forth. I ultimately believe the team with the better player will win.

Predicted winner: Portugal

 

France vs Argentina

Both of these teams come not in peak form. France seemed to be a bit off, defeating Australia and Peru each by only one goal and drawing against Denmark. There is no doubt that they are one of the most talented teams in this tournament, but there are concerns about their chemistry. On the other hand, Argentina has been a complete disaster. Manager Jorge Sampaoli has been stripped of his power over the team and the players look like they are lacking motivation. France is clearly the better team here.

Predicted winner: France

 

Brazil vs Mexico

This is perhaps the most anticipated match of the tournament. I like how these teams match up. Mexico goes based off how well their counter attack works. They use their speed to catch defenses off guard and sneak in a goal. Brazil, however, have players like Thiago Silva and Marcelo to put a stop to that. Also, Brazil seemed to come alive later in the group stage thanks to players Philippe Coutinho and Neymar, while Mexico completely fell apart in their final match against Sweden.

Predicted winner: Brazil

 

Belgium vs Japan

Super power vs underdog. That is the only explanation for this game. Belgium ran through Group G acquiring 9 points and a +7 goal differential. Meanwhile, Japan shocked the world by coming in second in Group H over Senegal and Poland. While Japan played well in the group stage, it is no secret that they are the weakest team on this stacked side of the bracket.

Predicted winner: Belgium

 

Spain vs Russia

Here we go. The host team vs the team many predicted to win it all. Spain was expected to run through Group B, yet they struggled mightily throughout, tying against Portugal and Morocco and just squeaking by Iran thanks to VAR. Russia, on the other hand, has exceeded all expectations thanks to their play. There is no doubt that this game will be loud, but will it be enough to will Russia to victory? I think not.

Predicted winner: Spain

 

Croatia vs Denmark

“Woah, Croatia is really good, huh” says every person not from Croatia. Yeah, they really are. Croatia is easily the least talked about superteam in the world. They are led by superstars Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, but they have the depth around them to make some serious noise in the knockout stage. Denmark finished second in Group C behind France with 5 points. They haven’t played particularly well up to this point, and it is hard to imagine them righting the ship here against Croatia.

Predicted winner: Croatia

 

Sweden vs Switzerland

Sweden is coming into this game fresh off of a 3-0 rout of Mexico to place themself on top of Group F and away from the deadly other side of the bracket. Meanwhile, Switzerland’s 2-1 victory over Serbia helped them finished second in Group E and deservedly here in the Round of 16. Switzerland is not talked about much as they are overshadowed by the big guns, but they do know how to play quality soccer. However, Sweden seems to be on a mission, and they do not plan to be stopped this early in the knockout stage.

Predicted winner: Sweden

 

Colombia vs England

This game has the potential to be the best yet. England is lead by the red hot Harry Kane who leads all players with 5 goals. Colombia also comes into this game in good form after their 3-0 defeat of Poland and their most recent clutch win over Senegal. However, James Rodríguez, their top player, is currently nursing a calf injury and his status seems to be leaning more towards the doubtful side for this match. No James equals no win.

Predicted Winner: England

 

Quarterfinals

Portugal vs France

Ah, the Euro Cup final rematch. So if Portugal was able to defeat France without Ronaldo, they should be able to beat them with him then, right? It’s not that simple. France has matured since then, seeming to be less caught up in the crowd noise and more relaxed in their style of play. While Portugal has a knack for pulling off these tough wins by sticking around all game, I do not see that happening here, ending what could be Ronaldo’s last World Cup.

Predicted winner: France

 

Brazil vs Belgium

Can Belgium finally get over the hump? After years of calling this the golden age of Belgian soccer, Belgium has consistently disappointed at this point of the tournament. Brazil, however, is not stranger to the big stage. They might be the more experienced team, but Belgium has just played so much better. It will not stop here.

Predicted winner: Belgium

 

Spain vs Croatia

Just writing that made me excited. This matchup is so intriguing because of the talent on both sides along with the expectations that each team carries with them. Spain has a great defense led by Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, but the Croatian attack has just looked so unstoppable lately.

Predicted winner: Croatia

 

Sweden vs England

Surprise team against hungry fanbase. At this point, Sweden is just happy to be here. Without Zlatan, nobody would have expected this, but why stop now? England has a reputation to crack in big games, and they have not gone very far in these big tournaments. I do not fancy them to get over the hump here. Let the Swedish journey continue!

Predicted winner: Sweden

 

Semi-Finals

France vs Belgium

Here…we…go. The two top teams in the world, by my standards, meeting in the semi-final of the biggest international tournament in the world, it does not get much better than that. The last time that France was in a World Cup final was in 2006. This game was perhaps the most entertaining final ever. Zinedine Zidane put France in a tough position by head butting an Italian player in the 110th minute. Italy eventually won 5-3 in penalties. Let the ghost of Zinedine Zidane return!

Predicted Winner: Belgium

 

Croatia vs Sweden

Nobody saw this coming before the World Cup started. I saw not one person predict this semi-final awhile back, and for good reason. Both teams have put the soccer community on notice, asserting their dominance over the more widely known top teams. However, there is one team here that is truly more talented than the other: Croatia. Sorry Sweden, the party has been busted and it’s time to go home.

Predicted winner: Croatia

 

The Championship Game

Belgium vs Croatia

This one is truly difficult to predict. Both teams are so good and playing incredibly well, so how can one decipher this. Well, to begin my prediction, I see this game going past the 90 minute mark and extending into extra time. However, a winner will be crowned there, but who will it be? Will Belgium live up to its golden age hype or will Croatia show off how talented they are on soccer’s biggest stage? Thibaut Courtois will be the X-factor here. Give me Belgium to hold up the trophy and pop the champagne.

World Cup Winner: Belgium

 

2018 FIFA World Cup Group Stage Predictions

The World Cup has finally arrived! Families will gather around the TV to support their country, or nationality in most cases, and watch some exciting soccer. Here are groups A-H and the predictions as to how they will pan out…

Group A- Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

  1. Uruguay
    • No surprise here; Uruguay is way too talented to not come out on top of a group like this. With an attack led by Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, and a stout defense with Atlétco Madrid centre-backs José Giménez and veteran Diego Godín, Uruguay should be just fine in this group stage of the World Cup.
  2. Russia
    • Home pitch advantage is not why I am picking Russia; they are simply more talented than the two remaining teams. Beloved CSKA Moscow goalie Igor Akinfeev and 22 year old midfielder Aleksandr Golovin are the key players for Russia. Even if they play well enough, it will not be easy for Russia to come out of this group despite a less than 100% Mohamed Salah from Egypt.

 

Group B- Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

  1. Portugal
    • Now before you close this tab at the sight of Spain being number two in this group, hear me out. Portugal has one of the best defenses in this World Cup led by Pepe and Southampton right back Cédric Soares. The midfield also has the defensive minded William Carvalho to help counter Spain’s uber-talented offense. And it would be a crime for me not to mention the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, who will be motivated to defeat Spain and get revenge against the team that defeated them 1-0 in the 2010 World Cup Round of 16 game and the 2012 Euro semi-final in which Spain won 4-2 in penalties without Ronaldo shooting a penalty shot.
  2. Spain
    • While I do not have Spain beating Portugal, it would be foolish of me to not have Spain going through to the next stage of the Cup. Spain has the talent and experience to make a serious run in this tournament. What worries me about this squad, however, is the recent drama surrounding their former manager Julen Lopetegui. Lopetegui took the Real Madrid job without telling president Luis Rubiales, and was promptly fired and replaced by Fernando Hierro. Coming a couple days before the World Cup, this spells trouble.

Group C- France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

  1. France
    • The European Championship runner-ups come rolling in off of a first place finish in the World Cup qualifiers with 23 points. Goalscorers in Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, and Olivier Giroud will run through this group easily. Midfielder Blaise Matuidi, defender Raphaël Varane, and outstanding goalkeeper Hugo Lloris will also be major factors. Give me France every day of the week.
  2. Denmark
    • Prior warning: do not be surprised by Denmark. They have Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen on their side along with centre-back and captain Simon Kjaer. Eriksen impressed so much in club play that Real Madrid offered to trade Tottenham Christian Bale for him. He could be one of the big surprises in this World Cup on a true underdog team that just defeated Mexico 2-0 last Saturday on home turf.

Group D- Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

  1. Argentina
    • Another easy one to predict here. Argentina simply has Lionel Messi on their side along with Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María. While Argentina has a tendency to disappoint in big tournaments like this, I do not see that happening this year as their best player should be more fit than ever after an early exit by Barcelona in the Champions League.
  2. Croatia
    • There was a lot of deliberation here deciding between Croatia and Nigeria. Ultimately, Croatia was the pick as they have the experience and a couple of star players on their side. They have played well as of late as they have defeated Mexico and Senegal and played decent against an unbelievable Brazil squad. Nigeria could give them fits in their first match, but I like Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić to weather the storm and get their team through to the next the round.

 

Group E- Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

  1. Brazil
    • I can go on and on about Brazil here explaining how great this team truly is, but I will keep it simple. Neymar, Fred, Coutinho, Marcelo, Willian, Silva. These players are all stars and will be leading this Brazil team onto the next round.
  2. Serbia
    • I know many of you are probably wondering right now what I am doing here predicting Serbia to advance over Switzerland. Well, the Swiss are missing two key strikers in Eren Derdiyok and Admir Mehmedi, so their attack will obviously be weakened. Now, this Serbian team is full of experience and is coming into this tournament red hot. Serbia lost only one game in the World Cup qualifiers, proving that chemistry is truly undervalued. Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic is playing in his third major tournament and will be helped out by veteran defensemen Aleksandar Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic. I like this Serbian team to shock a lot of people and potentially make a run in this tournament.

 

Group F- Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

  1. Germany
    • One of the favorites to win, Germany will be riding a bunch of familiar faces to help bring them the trophy for the second straight World Cup. Midfielder Mesut Özil, forward Thomas Müller, and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer will be key for this team. While Germany has taken a step back over the last couple years and has not looked so good as of recent, losing to Brazil and Austria, I still fancy them to come out on top of Group F.
  2. Mexico
    • Mexico is always an interesting team to me. When they are hot, they look like one of the better teams in the world, but they struggle a little too much for me to trust them fully. They are talented enough to get out of this group, though, as they are lead by midfielder Héctor Herrera, forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. While they will gain enough points to earn them a spot in the next round, look for them to play close games.

 

Group G- Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England

  1. Belgium
    • One of the more talented teams in the country, Belgium will have no problems landing atop this group. Players like midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, along with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois have all been here before, and they don’t seem to have any issues when it comes to the group stage portion of the World Cup. The elimination games are a different story for this team, but in terms of their group, they will come out on top of this one.
  2. England
    • England, in my eyes, is similar to Mexico. They play close games and are a streaky team. An attack lead by Harry Kane, however, will prove to be too much for Panama and Tunisia, but do not expect this to be easy for England. The experience of this team, though, will prove to be the difference maker here.

 

Group H- Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

  1. Colombia
    • This group might be the hardest to predict. A draw here or there could prove to be fatal for any one of these teams, but I believe Colombia will muster up enough points and pull out a big win to put them atop Group H. Midfielder James Rodríguez put on a show last World Cup and reliable goalkeeper David Ospina will lock down the fort on the other side of the ball. Colombia will squeak by here in one of the toughest groups in this tournament.
  2. Senegal
    • It has been 16 years since Senegal has made the World Cup. For those that remember, Senegal made a cinderella run in their first World Cup appearance ever in 2002, eventually losing to Turkey in the quarterfinal in extra time during the “golden goal” era. Lead by Liverpool winger Sadio Mané, who is coming off of a 10 goal season, Senegal is hungry. I like them to pull off an upset against Poland and advance into the next round.