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The Big Pitcher – Atlanta: MLS’ Next, Hard Step

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

I was an Atlanta resident once, for four years during college. In no way did this experience provide me with the insight to speculate on the prospects or necessity of an MLS franchise in Atlanta.

I was also a baseball-crazed adolescent boy growing up three hours southwest of the Georgia capitol, and that, in its own limited way, does. I watched nearly every non-West Coast game, thanks to the team's increasingly bizarre national broadcast deal with TBS. Every relative knew some random, $15 Braves trinket was a solid birthday or Christmas option. I grew up wanting to be Greg Maddux. I still want to be Greg Maddux.

What I didn't do was actually attend Braves games. My family and I went once a year if I was lucky, usually around my birthday.

Much has been made of MLS pushing to expand its footprint in the Southeast, some of which wrongly assumes that Orlando and Miami count. Growing up, the closest MLS team to my tiny Alabama hometown was the Mutiny around six hours away, but at no point did this ever occur to me. The Mutiny may as well have been playing in the Bay of Fundy for all I cared; my sense of geography just didn't extend to Florida. By the time I thought to look for the closest MLS team, it was in Columbus, which…no.

It's understandable that everyone feels they have to dip the city and its nascent franchise into their own personal litmus test to determine its potential. Will a cavernous NFL stadium suffocate the atmosphere? Will a vibrant supporter culture spring up out of the sprawl? Will anyone want to play on its turf? Will they just shut the team down when college football season starts?

I have no idea how successful an Atlanta team will be out of the gate in 2017. What I do know is the league needs a team in Atlanta. That footprint that's been such a focus in the run-up to Wednesday's announcement matters. The MLS model of hopping from safe zone to safe zone has been an unqualified success during the last decade of post-contraction rebirth, which is why it's freaking everyone out a little that the league is starting to disregard some of those rules in the cases of Atlanta, Miami and NYCFC.

At some point the league is going to have to blaze its own path. If Atlanta isn't ready for an MLS franchise, then there's no better place start that process, not just for the metro area itself, but for the thousands of little me's scattered throughout the region starting to think they might be interested in this soccer thing. They don't matter much on paper in terms of the metrics most of us look at when we judge soccer markets: They won't buy season tickets or write new and clever chants for 2017.

But in the more stable position MLS finds itself in, it can afford to take a flyer on developing some of these youth prospects, and the long-term growth potential the Atlanta market represents.

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

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