It might just be a few weeks into the 2017 MLS season, but expansion side Atlanta United FC has started so well that there has been some talk of the club being the best expansion team in MLS since, well, Seattle. The Sounders are no longer the fresh face of the league—they’re the grizzled, honored veterans celebrating their first MLS Cup.
As the two sides are set to duke it out for the first time in a competitive match this Friday, Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey praised the expansion team’s efforts so far.
“You’re seeing the crowds they have in Atlanta, the size of that launch, it’s a really, really successful organization,” he said. “It’s been as good a start as you could ever hope for. It’s been the best launch since the Sounders in 2009.”
It might not be a surprise to most, but Lagerwey pinpointed one huge reason as to why Atlanta has been so successful thus far: money. “They spent a boatload of money. They have the second-most expensive signing from a coach perspective, and I believe it’s the highest DP spend ever.” Although specifics on Martino’s contract are hard to find, he’s believed to be making well over $1 million a year, while Atlanta shelled out a reported transfer fee of $8 million for Miguel Almiron.
If you look at many of the ideas that helped the Sounders launch successfully nine years ago, you’ll probably see echoes of them in Atlanta’s launch so far. Lagerwey pointed to the Sounders’ early relationship with the Seattle Seahawks as a key boost, one that Atlanta is imitating by partnering with the Atlanta Falcons, “enormously successful organizations that I imagine helped them institutionally.”
Aside from their success, Lagerwey has another reason to admire Atlanta—their president, Darren Eales, is an old friend of his from their playing days. “Darren Eales, their president, was my roommate in the minor leagues for the Hampton Roads Mariners in 1995.” Lagerwey said he and Eales talk regularly, and that they discussed a breadth of MLS-related topics before Eales took the job with Atlanta.
But even though Lagerwey has a slight rooting interest in Atlanta because of his friendship with Eales, he stressed that a successful franchise launch benefits the Sounders and MLS as a whole. “Anything that’s good for the league is going to hopefully raise all boats and drive more attention and revenue.”
It’s clear that the Sounders will be watching Atlanta with great interest—not only because they’re going to face them on the pitch, but also because they’re always on the hunt for new ideas.
Much remains to be seen regarding Atlanta’s launch, but all signs so far point to success. If Atlanta can sell out their stadium in a “questionable sports market,” Lagerwey said, the bar for future expansion teams will be higher than ever. “I think it’s going to be a really, really good thing for the league to push it forward.”