Atlanta’s MLS hope may rest on new stadium

 by Doug Roberson

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said Atlanta’s hopes of one day getting an expansion franchise rest on a new stadium. Talking to reporters during a “state of the league” call on Monday ahead of Saturday’s championship game between Los Angeles and Houston, Garber said he and Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who in the past expressed an interest in starting a team in Atlanta, have had several discussions recently about the league, soccer and the city.

Right now, Garber said there’s simply no place for a team to play.

“The Falcons are looking to replace the Georgia Dome, so we wouldn’t want to play there,” Garber said. “There isn’t a college facility that makes sense. We respect what the Silverbacks have done, but that facility would be too small.

“What we’ve been focused on is should the public sector and private sector in Atlanta come together and get a new facility for the Falcons, it would allow us to continue our discussions …”

Garber is watching the ongoing debate about the possibility of constructing a new billion-dollar stadium for the Falcons with interest.

The MLS has 19 teams, but doesn’t have one in the Southeast. Garber has said his can’t be a national league until it has a team in every region.

One of the holdups in Atlanta is the lack of a suitable stadium. The Georgia Dome has hosted soccer events, but natural grass was installed for those games — an expensive proposal considering MLS teams host 17 games during the regular season, as well as exhibition games and friendlies.

The proposed new stadium will be designed to accommodate soccer, regardless of whether Blank owns a possible MLS team.

MLS has no requirements for stadium size or configuration. The league has soccer-specific stadiums, including new ones in Houston ($95 million) and Kansas City ($200 million), a team that plays in an open-air NFL stadium, Seattle, and a team that plays in a stadium with a retractable roof and synthetic grass, Vancouver.

The only requirement MLS has for stadiums is that the team’s ownership controls the venue and that they have a comprehensive plan. Blank and the Falcons may satisfy that guideline because they would pay a percentage of the stadium’s cost in what is being dubbed as a public-private project. Soccer isn’t needed to make the new stadium work financially, but it would be another revenue stream.

The Falcons hope the stadium would open in 2017, which could work with Major League Soccer’s nebulous expansion timeline.

The league is currently on the adding a 20th team in New York. The league has no specific plans to expand beyond 20 teams, but has had exploratory discussions with several cities in the Southeast, including Orlando and Miami.

MLS seems to be flourishing in the U.S. The league recently broke the 6-million mark for the first time, an increase of almost 2 million since 2010, according to Average attendance for games was 18,801. By comparison, the Hawks averaged 15,199 fans in 33 home games last year.

– Doug Roberson, AJC