In 2007 the Atlanta Silverbacks and Seattle Sounders faced off in the USL-1 Final. The Sounders had won the Commissioner's Cup already (the regular season title). They also made a deep run in the US Open Cup beating the Timbers, Chivas USA and the Rapids. Seattle would eventually fall to FC Dallas in the semifinals after 120 minutes of play. Atlanta was also a good team, 4th in the league. They were also knocked out of the US Open Cup by Dallas, but in a third-round match that went to PKs.
That Final was a trouncing. The four-nil scoreline doesn't do justice to my memory of the dominance. It was one way traffic. Several players who would make MLS rosters were on the field, including at least one for the Silverbacks (Mac Kandji). Rumors had already started about MLS coming to Seattle, it would be a month-plus before that was confirmed, but that 2007 year may be the best in Seattle soccer history.
Sure attendance was low, but that lower-division team dominated their league, were undefeated in winning the Cascadia and beat two of three MLS opponents in the Open Cup. In November we found out we'd get MLS. In 2009 Seattle would reinvent support of an MLS side, perfect the Open Cup and become one of the greatest sports business stories in American history.
Claiming that Seattle is one of the shining beacons of the what American soccer can by is both hyperbole and correct.
There's also Atlanta.
In a similarly sized market, with a team not quite as good and distant hopes connecting the area with MLS expansion things in Georgia may be a symbol of how difficult lower division professional soccer can be. They do things "right." There's a U-23 team, a women's side, they participate in youth development. In 2006 their own Starfire-esque soccer specific stadium came to use.
The path to get there is rough.
While 2007 was a turning point for the Sounders to become a great story, it was the high point of a sudden crash for the Silverbacks. In 2008 attendance and club quality fell for the Silverbacks. Then the TOA/USL battle started. Atlanta would be a city that couldn't or didn't survive that battle. For two seasons they were on hiatus.
Unlike most teams or leagues that suspend operations Atlanta made a comeback. They kept most of their non-pro activities going. But things aren't strong. It made sense for them economically to sell the rights to host Seattle in what would be their biggest game of the year, probably of the current iteration of the team.
Clubs in the lower leagues struggle financially. Some are vanity projects, while other's are essentially charities. A few are real charity. Just under than half of USL-1's teams could not function at that level either folding or voluntarily relegating to a less expensive league. The list of club failures in the previous A-League is even longer.
When people talk about the desire for pro/rel in America there is often an assumption that the dreams of going up a level will generate interest. Limited experiences with some pseudo promotion in America have shown those clubs collapse at the higher level or self-relegate. As discovered in Seattle, Toronto, Portland and Vancouver certain cities in North America are "major league cities."
Look again at those A-League failures. Many of them could work in MLS. Every city (except Vegas) mentioned as a possible expansion site is there. There is little evidence from their lower level attendance that the business of soccer can succeed there. Except we know that it will in one, two, three or more markets.
Just look at the path of the Seattle Sounders and the Atlanta Silverbacks over the past five years. In 2007 things were very similar. Both were quality teams with low attendance in a small SSS or cavernous Qwest when used in regular season for Sounderes. One climbed the economic mountain and became amazing. The other sat out two full seasons and is now one of the worst teams at it's level that receives economic support from the league.