USA | Taking a second chance at building women’s premier league

Unsure about opportunities overseas, Gaston found work in marketing at the Journal-Constitution. She also played for the Atlanta Silverbacks of the W-League and forms part of the inner circle of advisers who have begun to lay groundwork for the Beat’s successor.

Georgia’s place in women’s soccer history already should be secure. Grassroots work by the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Chiefs in the late 1960s (see 4 Oct 08) led in 1971 to one of the nation’s first all-girls’ leagues at the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA. Title IX–inspired activism established girls’ soccer in Atlanta-area schools, followed, of course, by the U.S. women’s gold medal in Athens.

Johnson represents one of the new generation of enlightened soccer dads. One of his daughters, Jordan, recently completed her freshman season at Texas Tech, led by former Beat coach and current national U-20 assistant Tom Stone. Johnson played for both club and high school (Woodbridge) in suburban Virginia. He excelled, however, as a wrestler and competed for the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina, in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships.

Before becoming CEO with an Atlanta-based military contractor, he earned coaching qualifications and guided his daughters’ teams from U4 through U19. His son plays soccer at Marietta High School and numbers among some 75,000 youth players registered in Georgia. We were impressed that, shunning the domestic vernacular, Johnson at the press conference used the terms “pitch” and “boots”—residue perhaps of a 20-year military career and his international experience, or of weekend mornings glued to Fox Soccer Channel.

Although his resources expanded when the consulting firm his father started became a Lockheed Martin subsidiary in May, Johnson offers a contrasting portfolio to the Russian oligarchs portrayed in a recent Sports Illustrated. Some of the latter are splashing out up to $7 million per year on women’s basketball teams. Compared to playing for the Spartak team owned by Shabtai von Kalmanovic, Diana Taurasi quips that “the WNBA is, like, communist” (see Alexander Wolff, “To Russia with Love,” Dec 15).

Johnson is likely more approachable than these Russian counterparts. He gladly schmoozed with a young player who, inspired by sea creatures floating in turquoise aquarium water, suggested “Stingrays” as a possible team nickname. (The team announces its name on 25 Apr 09 after online voting; “Stingrays” is one of the early choices.)

Johnson said that stadium options are in process but acknowledged pressure coming from the region’s suburban soccer lobby. They would prefer a location, in local lingo, “outside the Perimeter,” the ring road that, roughly speaking, separates suburb from city. As mentioned, the Beat had played in a stadium with rapid-transit access. Herndon Stadium, near the eponymous Herndon Home, was situated in Vine City, a historically African American neighborhood settled in the 19th century. Martin Luther King Jr., following generations of the city’s black leaders, lived there with his family on Sunset Street.

We either took a MARTA train to Beat games or parked at the 125-year-old Christian Methodist Episcopal church across the street. Should the new side realize Johnson’s ambitions of signing top international talent such as Marta Vieira da Silva—already signed by Los Angeles Sol—it would have a ready-made marketing slogan: “Riding Marta to the WPS Cup.”

But one possible site for hosting the top tier of Atlanta soccer is Kennesaw State University, a women’s soccer power that won the Division II NCAA championship in its second season in 2005. It is now in Division I. By Johnson’s reckoning, 95 percent of the area’s youth-soccer registrants live in such exurban zones, primarily to the north.

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