Soccer on stage at Dome

Last month’s soccer game between Mexico and Venezuela was a celebration of love for the Mexican community in Atlanta, as well as the Southeast.

More than 50,000 fans filled the Georgia Dome, loudly and joyously rooting on “El Tri,” as the Mexican national team is known.

But today’s 7 p.m. game between powerhouses Club America of Mexico and Italy’s A.C. Milan will be watched not just by fans but also by officials in the soccer community. Atlanta’s ability to sustain the enthusiasm could help determine if it has a shot at hosting a World Cup game in 2018 or 2022, or of gaining a Major League Soccer team in the meantime.

Despite the city’s checkered past with the sport, the lack of a soccer stadium and economic conditions that punted a recent effort to bring an MLS team here, many insist pro soccer has a future in Atlanta.

“I think soccer in this city is going to take a huge step based upon the foundation that was built with the Mexico-Venezuela game and the Club America-A.C. Milan game,” said Atlanta Sports Council President Gary Stokan, who is helping to prepare the city’s World Cup bid.

Members of U.S. Soccer’s bid group will be at the game and are touring Atlanta this week as they research which cities to include in their World Cup bid. They must submit a bid to FIFA, the international soccer governing body, by next May.

The Georgia Dome, which had been looking to add soccer events to tap the local market, helped to arrange the two international games, which dovetail with the U.S. bid group’s work.

Stokan says the group will see a city that has become much more cosmopolitan, even from when it hosted the Summer Olympics in 1996, when soccer finals were played in Athens because the Dome was tied up with other events. Sixty consulates are in Atlanta, and Delta offers flights to 55 countries. World Cup fans would have no trouble getting here or finding services.

Longer-term, said Bob Hope, an Atlanta sports marketing guru, soccer has the potential to be a huge economic driver for metro Atlanta. “It could create enormous positives for the city,” he said.

Hope said this summer’s games show that a fan base exists. “The interest in soccer is far greater for the international teams than people realize,” he said.

Fleeting success?

Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who studies the hospitality industry, is skeptical of assuming that onetime events translate into long-term success.

He said the benefits of big, one-time sports events can be fleeting. Team owners are always looking longer term for the next big stadium or the newest field, he said, forcing cities to constantly try to reinvent themselves to meet those needs.

“The great problem with competing in this arena is there are an enormous number of cities out there that feel they can draw this kind of activity just as well as Atlanta,” Sanders said

But Atlanta soccer boosters say the city can set itself apart if the U.S. bid group sees a big fan base for tonight’s game and is impressed with its ability to host major events.

“Atlanta has a history of hosting events, but it doesn’t have the history of hosting these large soccer events,” said Scott Moran, a partner at Berman Fink Van Horn P.C. He is an international attorney working on Atlanta’s World Cup efforts, as well as efforts to bring an MLS club to the city.

“People need to come out and support the events to show the world that Atlanta can host these soccer events.”

By the time the World Cup arrives — if it arrives — Atlanta could already have an MLS franchise. Falcons owner Arthur Blank submitted a bid to the league last year when it was expanding. But he pulled out earlier this year when the $40 million non-refundable expansion fee came due and he couldn’t find a partner to help finance a new stadium.

Blank declined to comment for this story, other than to say he’d consider trying again under the right economic conditions.

Of the top 10 most populous U.S. metro areas, only Atlanta and Miami don’t have an MLS team. The league has no team in the Southeast but would like to add one, said Dan Courtemanche, the league’s senior vice president for marketing and communications.

The 14 teams in the MLS extend from Seattle to Los Angeles, Houston to Toronto, and draw an average of 15,434 fans a game. Next year’s expansion adds Philadelphia, which paid $30 million to join. In 2011 come Vancouver and Portland, which paid $35 million each. The league has said it hopes to eventually have 20 teams.

While the Georgia Dome can be used for special event games, Atlanta needs a dedicated venue for an MLS team, Courtemanche said. Before Blank withdrew his bid, he was trying to find a site for a 20,000-seat stadium that would cost an estimated $80 million.

“We believe Atlanta could be a very successful market for a Major League Soccer team if the club has an appropriate stadium,” Courtemanche said.

Odd history

Outdoor soccer has an odd history in the city. The Atlanta Chiefs, which played from 1967-73 in the North American Soccer League, won the first pro championship of any Atlanta team in 1968. The Chiefs changed their name to the Apollos in 1972, only to fold one year later. However, the Chiefs returned in 1978 when the Colorado Caribou relocated here and adopted the old nickname, with Ted Turner as part owner. That team folded in 1981.

Other teams have come and gone. The Atlanta Silverbacks, the equivalent of a Class AAA baseball team, started as the Ruckus in 1995 before changing their nickname in 1998. They are taking the 2009 season off, citing the economy. The women’s Silverbacks team is still playing. Another women’s team, the Beat, a member of the new Women’s Professional Soccer league, begin play in 2010. A prior version of the Beat started here in 2001 and dissolved when the Women’s United Soccer Association failed in 2003.

Nevertheless, local soccer fans seem confident an MLS team can succeed here. Raffy Contigo, programming director for Atlanta’s 105.3FM “El Patron,” said Atlanta’s estimated 700,000-strong Latin American population will support a team.

“If you talk to any Mexican or person of Mexican descent, they would absolutely support a team,” he said.

Another potentially huge fanbase: youth soccer leagues. The Georgia State Soccer Association has 80,000 kids playing in its leagues, and with 100,000 youths and adults playing statewide, soccer has the most registered participants of any sport in Georgia, said Rick Skirvin, the association’s executive director.

“I’m confident, that based upon population and position in the Southeast, that we would do quite well,” said Skirvin. “We would meet the average [attendance] at least, if not go beyond the average.”

World Football Challenge

Who: Club America vs. A.C. Milan

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Georgia Dome

Tickets: ticketmaster.com or worldfootballchallenge.com

TV: ESPN2