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MLS Expansion: Next Up Is The A-T-L

There's no looking back as MLS cranks up plans to go to beyond 22 teams, FIFA's reservations be damned

Blank's billions are set to make Atlanta an MLS city.
Blank's billions are set to make Atlanta an MLS city.
Scott Cunningham

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we should be expecting to welcome Atlanta to the landscape of MLS in the very near future. Reports say that they will be the 22nd team to join the league in 2017, along with David Beckham's Miami franchise. What does this mean for the league? And more importantly will this addition to the league be a success?

Eastern Conference overload

First off, what does this mean for the league? Garber is definitely going after the southeast market by having Orlando City and Miami officially joining the league and now Atlanta. How will this affect the rest of the league? There will definitely have to be some sort of realignment. This table could possibly show what will happen in the next few years(changes in red):

2014 2015 2017
Eastern Conference Western Conference Eastern Conference Western Conference Eastern Conference Western Conference
Chicago Colorado Chicago Colorado Atlanta Colorado
Columbus Chivas USA Columbus LA2 Chicago LA2
DC United Dallas DC United Dallas Columbus Dallas
Houston LA Galaxy Sporting KC Houston DC United Houston
Sporting KC Portland Montreal LA Galaxy Miami Sporting KC
Montreal Real Salt Lake New England Portland Montreal LA Galaxy
New England San Jose NYCFC Real Salt Lake New England Portland
NYRB Seattle NYRB San Jose NYCFC Real Salt Lake
Philadelphia Vancouver Orlando City Seattle NYRB San Jose
Toronto Philadelphia Vancouver Orlando City Seattle
Toronto Philadelphia Vancouver
But, really - Atlanta?

Probably more important than realignment is the question of whether an Atlanta franchise will be successful. Let's take a look at some of the pros and cons:

  • It may not affect the conferences that much, but by 2017 two of the more dominant teams in the Eastern Conference may be heading to the Western Conference. Realignment is something that could happen no matter who comes into the league; in the above scenario, if team No. 24 is in San Antonio or Sacramento then what you see for the conferences will not change.
  • Potential owner is billionaire Arthur Blank. Co-founder of Home Depot and owner of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, Blank definitely has the finances to support an MLS team. The question is, what type of owner will he be? Will he be like the Sounders owners when it comes to investing in the quality of the product, or will he mimic another NFL owner, Robert Kraft? Adding another franchise where the owner views soccer as a irritating step-child would be sub-optimal.
  • Right now the Atlanta Falcons plan on opening a new stadium in 2017. In the stadium renderings there is a photo of what the stadium will look like used for soccer. The upper decks will be shielded by curtains much like the BC Place in Vancouver. This will give the appearance of a full stadium and have a capacity of roughly 22 thousand. Great idea - my only question is, what ever happened to the policy that MLS expansion teams must have soccer specific stadiums? Does a 100 million dollar expansion fee trump that requirement now? It is great that an Atlanta franchise will technically have no rent but it would be even better if the MLS didn't have to schedule around the NFL and have these franchises that play in NFL stadia.
  • Lastly, will an Atlanta franchise be able to capture the support of the community? Right now the Atlanta Silverbacks play in the NASL. The Silverbacks have been averaging 4016 in attendance over the past 3 years; before that, while playing in the old USL 1st Division/A-League they barely averaged 2100 in attendance from 1995 to 2008. Are Atlantans uninterested in lower-division soccer going to turn out for a first-division club? Trying to change the attendance for a professional soccer team in Atlanta will come down to the ownership creating a product that Atlanta will want. Will it take big name DPs to do that? It may definitely spark interest and demand like at all other MLS franchises. If Blank chooses to run things differently and create a product that the community will not support this may end up struggling.

In my opinion Atlanta could be a hit or miss franchise. With all of the talk around the size of the soccer community in Atlanta, it will be up to Arthur Blank to create a product that will draw people to the games. The Atlanta Falcons have had no problems recently with attendance, but other teams - like the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers(now Winnipeg Jets) - have proven that if you don't offer the right product to Atlanta (i.e., a winner) they will not support it. Winning will cure a lot of these ills, but MLS in 2017 is going to be a difficult league to win. Good luck, Mr. Blank.