Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber announced to a packed press conference on Wednesday afternoon that Atlanta has been awarded the league’s 22nd franchise.
The expansion team, which will begin play in 2017, will be owned by Arthur Blank, co-founder of The Home Depot and owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, with the name and logo, along with coaching and administrative staff, to be announced at a later date. A state-of-the-art retractable roof stadium to be built in the downtown area, at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion, will serve as home to both the soccer club and the Falcons, with a planned seating capacity of 29,322 for MLS games.
“We are thrilled to welcome Atlanta to Major League Soccer as our 22nd team,” Garber said. “Atlanta is one of the largest and most diverse markets in North America and has a rich tradition in sports and culture. And with Arthur Blank joining our ownership group, we are adding one of the most respected owners in professional sports.”
With a gaping hole previously blighting the Southeast of the MLS map, Blank and executives from the Falcons and AMB Group have been working closely with the league to bring top-flight soccer to Atlanta since as early as 2008. As the largest market in the country without an MLS team, Blank had briefly entered the race for one of two expansion slots for the 2011 season, before having to withdraw in the early stages of the process, after failing to find any partners to help finance the bid. However, with strong youth soccer movement and vibrant and growing Hispanic-American population, Atlanta’s potential was not lost on Garber and MLS officials, who have been outspoken in recent years about their efforts to bring a team to the city dubbed the ‘Capital of the South’.
“We are very excited to bring a Major League Soccer team to Atlanta,” Blank said. “We are going to build a first-class organization on and off the field that will be a source of pride for the entire community, and we believe our downtown stadium will become a destination for soccer fans throughout the Southeast for many years to come.”
Though Atlanta is often criticised as a “bad sports town”, the team already boasts a vocal fan group, in the shape of the Terminus Legion, while NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks saw a solid, if unspectacular, 4,703 average attendance in 2013. The city also has a soccer tradition which dates back to the Chiefs of the old NASL, who won the league’s very first championship in 1968, while the state of Georgia has produced a wealth of talented players in the past 15 years, including World Cup veterans Clint Mathis, Josh Wolff and Ricardo Clark, as well as rising MLS stars Jack McInerney and Sean Johnson.
Atlanta’s arrival marks the third expansion announcement for MLS in the past year, following the additions of New York City FC and Orlando City for 2015. With plans for David Beckham’s potential Miami franchise also expected to be finalised in the near future, it marks a remarkable and rapid transformation for the league, which has seen 11 clubs added since the beginning of 2005 and hopes to grow to 24 by 2020.