MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Arthur Blank explain why pro soccer will take off in Atlanta

ATLANTA — When you think about Atlanta, soccer is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But that's about to change.

In fact, after awarding Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and the city of Atlanta the 22nd MLS expansion team to start in play in 2017, MLS commissioner Don Garber on Wednesday called the city "the perfect market" for professional soccer.

"This market is much different than the average American or Canadian city," Garber said after the press conference. "It's incredibly diverse. It's very young and most of those young people are working at corporations downtown and are living downtown. It's a very large Hispanic market, larger than most people understand. It's the perfect market."

The discussions with Blank and the Falcons began 10 years ago, but MLS was still struggling for stability at the time and there was no $1.2 billion downtown stadium that was part of the conversation. And a new stadium needed to be built.

"It was," Garber said when asked if the stadium was the final piece of the puzzle for Atlanta to clinch an expansion team. "We needed to have an environment that we thought would be the perfect home for an MLS team and we're very confident this one will be."

Blank pointed out that the state-of-the-art downtown facility that's opening in 2017 is considered by some experts to be the best sports and entertainment venue in the world. It will house the NFL Falcons and will be downsized for use by the MLS expansion team with the help of next generation technology when compared to the downsizing of BC Place, home of the Vancouver Whitecaps.

But Blank also made it clear that he did not acquire an MLS expansion team just "to fill up dates" at a brand new venue. He reminded the audience at Wednesday's announcement that Atlanta is "the ninth-largest city in the United States" and the largest without an MLS team.

And he also noted the "historically important" role of youth soccer in the city which lends itself to welcoming an MLS side.

"Georgia is in the top 10 in the country when it comes to youth soccer players and it's also a top 10 adult soccer market," said former Columbus Crew GM and current Falcons executive VP, Jim Smith. "You start looking at all these numbers and all the people who are passionate about the game and you combine it with the international matches we've hosted that have attracted nearly 70,000 fans," in reference to an Atlanta soccer record attendance of 68,212 watched Mexico vs. Nigeria on March 5 at the Georgia Dome.

"We can draw from Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina and we look at the participation numbers and soccer interest in those states, and this Atlanta franchise is in a perfect situation to launch," Smith continued. "It's the right time for MLS in Atlanta."

But both Smith and Garber singled out one more reason why they believe pro soccer will take off in Atlanta: the newest MLS owner.

"We're not here without Arthur Blank," Garber said. "Arthur is just an incredibly special guy. He's just so unique and so humble and so focused on success and all the things that go into success both on the field and off the field.

"He is just so important as we continue to build what we call a 'soccer nation,'" Garber continued. "And having Arthur as part of the family is going to get us there a little quicker."