Acting as master of ceremonies, Alexi Lalas wasted no time implicitly confirming what we all knew. With Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber and the league’s newest owner arriving at Wednesday’s announcement via helicopter, MLS confirmed that Home Depot co-founder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank would own the league’s 22nd franchise, adding Atlanta to the list of new teams that will anchor the league’s efforts in the U.S. Southeast.
“We are thrilled to welcome Atlanta to Major League Soccer as our 22nd team,” the commissioner said in a statement, distributed by the league. “Atlanta is one of the largest and most diverse markets in North America and has a rich tradition in sports and culture.
Atlanta had emerged as the clear favorite for the league’s next expansion franchise after Garber spoke favorably about the city’s candidacy in a late-winter teleconference. Now, with the league having confirmed the team’s entry, one that will begin play in 2017, MLS’s vision for the U.S. Southeast is complete. Joining franchises in Orlando City SC and David Beckham’s presumed team in Miami, Atlanta will try to reestablish a presence in a region in which Major League Soccer has previously failed.
“We are very excited to bring a Major League Soccer team to Atlanta,” Blank said, according to the league’s website. “[W]e believe our downtown stadium will become a destination for soccer fans throughout the Southeast for many years to come.”
The Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion closed their doors in 2001, leaving lingering doubts as to the viability to professional soccer in the league’s southeast corridor. Emphasizing the importance or reestablishing MLS’s presence in that region, Garber spoke to the role Atlanta will play in the league’s growth, saying the city’s growth and diversity made it a target market for the quickly expanding league.
Garber confirmed the team will share a new venue with the Falcons, one that will open in 2013. According to Blank, the team will play on an artificial surface, with the venue’s seating allowing the NFL configuration to give way to a wider soccer arrangement with reduced seating. During the session’s question and answer segment, Blank indicated the expected capacity will be around 29,000, emphasizing “there will never be a game where NFL lines are shown on the field.”
In July 2013, Garber announced MLS’s intention to expand from 19 teams to 24 by 2020. Teams in New York, Orlando and potentially Miami had been previously announced, with Atlanta now set to occupy the league’s 23rd slot.