It’s official: Atlanta gets Major League Soccer’s 22nd franchise

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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.

(MORE: Atlanta, MLS don’t need to quiet doubts to be successful in the South)

“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.

USMNT prospect Ledezma earns praise from van Nistelrooy

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Even for talents of the highest levels with top soccer education, sometimes a kid’s gotta learn how to eat.

Richard “Richie” Ledezma, 18, is in the midst of his first year at Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven, a spot which beckoned after a five-match, one-goal season in the USL with Real Monarchs of the USL.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Ledezma starred for U.S. U-20 team at the World Cup after his first half-season with PSV, which saw him play with the U-19s while trying to lose some weight.

From Goal.com:

“PSV help me with my nutrition, with my food and how I eat. It’s the quantity of food you eat, I guess,” he added. “Because I came a little chubby, when I got here, I guess. They all called me ‘fatty’ and stuff, so I was like, cool, you know? So no more McDonald’s.”

Goal’s James Westwood had a wide-ranging interview with Ledezma and also spoke with soccer royalty: longtime Real Madrid and Manchester United scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy was Ledezma’s coach with the U-19s.

“He’s making a difference in midfield with very quick-thinking passes, movement, can score a goal, play people in, he’s creating chances for the whole team.”

That’s not just good praise from a legend, but a solid sign for fans of the United States men’s national team. A proper No. 10 or playmaking midfielder could allow Gregg Berhalter or another future USMNT coach to use Christian Pulisic on the wings.

Ledezma has some work to do before he breaks into the first team of the Dutch runners-up, who have signed former Stoke City man Ibrahim Afellay and has Gaston Pereiro in the fold as well.

Newcastle reportedly in for $28M mercurial Nice attacker

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L’Equipe says that Newcastle United have returned to Nice in the hopes of landing Allan Saint-Maximin.

The Ligue 1 outfit wants $28 million for the playmaker, who could team up with Miguel Almiron and (maybe) Joelinton to give the Magpies a much-improved attack.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Saint-Maximin, 22, has 10 goals and 10 assists across his last two seasons with Nice, and played everywhere in attack for Patrick Vieira: both wings, center forward, second striker, attacking mid… even some left and right midfield.

The player, however, has been a headache for Vieira at times, with the manager saying Saint-Maximin believes that he has enough talent to reach the highest level without the required amount of work.

That said, the youngster’s skill set is electric. He’s a March birth date, too, so a relatively young 22. That $28 million would be another transfer record broken for Newcastle, assuming it happens ahead of the Joelinton move.

Or… as Newcastle fan knows, neither could go through.

Clark County “declines to prosecute” Ronaldo for rape

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Cristiano Ronaldo will not face sexual assault charges for a June 2009 incident in the United States, attorneys say.

An American woman filed a civil lawsuit against the Juventus superstar last year, claiming that Ronaldo forced himself upon her while she was in a prone position in his hotel room.

[ MORE: Bayern keen on Zaha ]

Ronaldo had expressed belief that he would be cleared of the claims, and claimed that graphic documents produced by German publication Der Spiegel were altered and fabricated.

Las Vegas police issued a warrant in a bid to get Ronaldo’s DNA, and the DA’s office says the woman’s refusal to name her attacker stopped them for collecting “vital evidence.” The woman reached a civil settlement with Ronaldo in 2010.

From News3LV.com:

“Based upon a review of the information presented at this time, the allegations of sexual assault against Cristiano Ronaldo cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” the D.A.’s office said. “Therefore, no charges will be forthcoming.”

Bayern Munich kicking the tires on big Zaha bid

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A sensational report is linking Wilfried Zaha not just with a move away from Crystal Palace, but a move clear of the Premier League altogether.

90min.com says that Bayern Munich has turned to Zaha, having been rebuffed in their pursuit of Manchester City’s Leroy Sane.

Palace wants $100 million for Zaha, but so far has only received a $50 million offer from Arsenal for his services. Reports Monday said Arsenal is upping its bid, and offering a loan of Reiss Nelson as a make-good. Palace has had good Fortune with loans from the big boys of the PL, in particular with Ruben Loftus-Cheek two seasons ago.

A lot of this makes sense for all parties, apart from Sane, and it will be interesting to see if the report brings a bigger bid from the Gunners.

Zaha is a sensational player, and has created chances year-after-year for the Eagles. He wants to taste the Champions League, but Palace is not willing to let him go for (much) less than its asking price given its sale of Aaron Wan-Bissaka to Manchester United.

Bayern will spend less on Zaha than it would on Gareth Bale or Sane, and get a determined player who is very much in his prime. Zaha would also get the chance to showcase himself with actual breathing room on the pitch, thanks to Serge Gnabry, Robert Lewandowski, and others.

And Palace, of course, will end up with between $80-100 million and the knowledge that it won’t need to mark Zaha on a Premier League pitch. More importantly, the money raised from Zaha and Wan-Bissaka will allow them to strengthen at nearly every position (above what they have now, not above AWB and Zaha).