By Jarrett Smith

Jason Longshore had the chance on Dec. 1 to interview FOX Sports soccer commentator Rob Stone about the 2018 World Cup, USMNT, MLS and Atlanta United. Rob Stone is FOX’s lead studio host for all of their soccer coverage on the network. As the home of the 2018 World Cup, today was a busy day for Rob as he helmed the coverage of the World Cup Draw. You can read the first part of this interview and then the second part by following these links…

We were excited in Atlanta about Brad Guzan being part of the U.S. Squad. It didn’t happen, but I wanted to get your reactions to watching Atlanta United from afar.
ROB: Stunned. Stunned on and off the field. I’m a southern gentleman at heart. I like my sweet tea, I don’t like my sweet tea I LOVE my sweet tea. I get excited when I see Bojangles and waffle house and if Cracker Barrel is on the side of the highway I’m pulling over and I’m getting my cornbread and my biscuit and chicken and dumplings. Don’t give me a menu I know what I’m ordering. I love the south, I lived in the south but I hadn’t seen soccer excel in the south.

I had seen it do very well in the youth system, I had obviously seen some university programs do well but on the professional level really outside of the old-school Tampa Bay Rowdies really kind of struggle. And it’s always hard to say Florida is in the south even though it’s more south than the Carolinas and Georgia and company but I had been tracking the Atlanta market for a long time. I used to work local television in Albany, Georgia. Atlanta always struck me as kind of this fair-weather sports town where you better be doing well or no one is really going to care, so when the Braves were hot back in the day man it was fantastic. I loved watching the games. And then when they dipped I was like ‘wow that brand new stadium seems awfully empty. Here come the Falcons and the Dirty Bird and when they dipped, there go the fans. You just hadn’t seen that popularity of the sport to that type of level to the south and I was not optimistic.

And I still don’t know why it worked. I wish I knew. You know there are new franchises that are coming to MLS that want to look at what Atlanta did to make themselves successful. You can follow a script on what they did on the playing field. The way they did the acquisitions. How they went about it. Clearly, they spent some money. Arthur Blank said ‘I’m not going to ease into MLS, I’m coming in guns blazing!’ and I love that approach and I applaud them for that, what Carlos Bocanegra and company did.

But the off the field success, I don’t think anybody saw coming. I still don’t know where it came from. I’d love to know how it happened. I was even worried when they left Georgia Tech and they went into Mercedes-Benz and I thought ‘what a great atmosphere here, boy I hope people don’t bail now that it’s inside now’ and BOOM, sure enough they find a way to top it.
I was stunned Pleasantly stunned. Couldn’t have been happier. It’s funny because the success that Atlanta had has changed the MLS game. It’s no secret that Detroit I think shifted their stadium philosophy to ‘lets get away from building a soccer specific stadium’ into saying ‘well, look Atlanta has had success. Seattle can do it in an NFL stadium. Why aren’t we doing it? We already have a stadium here. It is going to be a hell of a lot easier and a lot cheaper. Let’s just stick it there.’ That part scares me. I don’t want to be playing in football stadiums. I don’t want to be playing in domes if I can help it. I want natural grass, I want people outside. But the model that Atlanta built with the success and the butts in those seats, there’s a lot of wealthy billionaires saying this league can continue to grow and survive and maybe just maybe their homes should be in these NFL stadiums. I would buy that but boy it’s hard to argue it when you look at what Seattle and Atlanta do on a regular basis.

You mentioned the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Tell me about your love for the Rowdies.
ROB: My sports love on the professional side. I was born in Tampa but moved away at a very early age and when I first got involved in the sport of soccer my dad said to me ‘you need a team to follow’ and back then you didn’t follow EPL, you didn’t know what was going on in Germany and Italy. There wasn’t this lifeline to that and he said there was a team in my hometown. Tampa. The Tampa Bay Rowdies. And that just became my team. I loved the green and yellow, I had the fully kit, I loved Rodney Marsh, The Crown-Prince of soccer. I had a poster of him up on my bedroom wall. When I would go to school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina I wouldn’t sign my papers Rob Stone when I was in second grade, I signed them Rodney Stone. So that’s how much I loved Rodney Marsh and the teachers did not know what the hell was going on with young student Stone over there and I’m sure there were some parent teacher meetings where that came up and they had to properly explain why I had to sign my papers that way. But that’s how it started and it just never left.

I’m a Tar Heel at heart I’ll always cheer for North Carolina basketball. I’m a Rowdie at heart. I’ll always cheer for the success of the Tampa Bay Rowdies. But in my business, I don’t really allow myself too many options to be a fan. I’m just a fan of sports in general and a fan of the stories and you need to cover it in an even-keeled manner. People ask me ‘who is your favorite soccer team? Who is your favorite EPL team?’ I don’t really have one. I just love the game and I love watching and I love cheering for American success.

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