By Paul Kennedy
When MLS Commissioner Don Garberannounced at the All-Star Game six weeks ago that the league's plan was to expand to 24 teams by 2020, the names of a dozen or so cities representing all parts of the country were immediately dropped as expansion candidates.
Each city has its advantages and certainly committed soccer boosters championing its cause, but at the end of the day a few key factors are going to weigh heavily in MLS's decision-making: first and foremost location, then owner commitment and stadium plans -- basically a package deal -- and demographics.
All make Atlanta a slam dunk, the third of the big three along with Orlando and Miami on the expansion horizon that will give MLS a significant presence in the South, where it has been absent since the demise of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion in 2001.
Atlanta isn't ready to sign on the dotted line but it does present MLS several important strategic advantages.
It offers MLS a clean deal: a wealthy investor willing to step up with a new stadium. Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank has owned the NFL Falcons since 2002 and has plans to build a new football stadium in the Vine City section of Atlanta.
Sources told the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week that Blank was in "significant discussions" with MLS. He is no stranger to soccer as he is heavily involved as a soccer parent. One of his sons, Josh, plays for the Concorde Fire, a perennial Soccer America Top 30 youth club.
Plans for the new football stadium to replace (already) the indoor Georgia Dome call for it to be designed to accommodate soccer (field width and down-sized seating configuration). The model for the Atlanta stadium is Seattle's CenturyLink Field and Vancouver's B.C. Place, both downtown football stadiums downsized for soccer with retractable roofs but with one big exception. The Atlanta stadium will have grass, not turf.
Blank and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed have an understanding on the financing of the $1 billion stadium costs, but there are still lots of hurdles to overcome. The first: get an agreement from two neighborhood Baptist churches -- for a hefty fee -- to move so the new stadium can be built on space where they are located south of the Georgia Dome. Blank and Reed hope to have confirmation of the downtown site in the next few days and a timetable for completion of the stadium project.
There is no suitable short-term site for an MLS team, so an Atlanta expansion team would not likely begin before 2017 or 2018 -- which is actually a plus. It would give MLS time to get its other expansion teams, beginning with NYCFC (and perhaps Orlando) in 2015, up and running and stagger the stocking of the expansion rosters all while having a confirmed expansion team not only gearing up for its launch but gearing up with the apparatus of an NFL team behind it.
American pro soccer's roots are in Atlanta, more specifically the locker-room office out of the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium where the late Phil Woosnam and Clive Toye schemed to save the NASL after it contracted from 17 teams in 1968 to five in 1969, though nostalgia alone won't make an MLS expansion team.
The NASL Chiefs never drew well and folded after two attempts (1967-73 and 1979-81). The Silverbacks, the spring champions of the new NASL, draw reasonably well but only play in a 5,000-seat facility.
Atlanta is the ninth largest metropolitan area in the country, and only Miami at No. 8 is a bigger market without an MLS team. Atlanta touts itself as attractive to Generation Y workers who form the key demo of MLS fans, males 18-34, and boasts a large Latino population attracted to South during the building boom of the last decade.
An Atlanta team would also give MLS reach into the surrounding South Atlantic states that are again experiencing high job growth.
Above all, an Atlanta MLS team would give it another downtown team that it is counting on be the wave of the future after its recent successes in Seattle, Vancouver and Portland.
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