Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the future home of MLS expansion team Atlanta United FC, isn’t scheduled to open until next summer, but Atlanta fans won’t have to wait until then to see their team play at home in their debut season.
The club announced on Wednesday that it will begin next season playing at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium in order to facilitate a normalized schedule with a balanced slate of home games until Mercedes-Benz Stadium opens in the summertime.
The club had previously planned to play the entirety of its March, April and May schedule on the road.
Other MLS clubs have begun recent seasons with lengthy road trips while their stadiums have been under construction, with Toronto FC starting the last two years with long road trips while BMO Field was being renovated and Sporting Kansas City beginning the 2011 season with a months-long road trip while Children’s Mercy Park was being completed.
Club president Darren Eales and Steve Cannon, CEO of Atlanta United’s parent company, AMB Group, said the decision to play at Bobby Dodd Stadium was made to give the club’s fans a chance to see the team from the start of their first MLS season and to give the squad a better chance at being immediately competitive in MLS.
“We think it’s exciting for a number of reasons. Firstly, our fans get to see the team in Atlanta three months earlier than we planned and secondly, of course, we’re not going to play on the road for that three-month period, which for expansion teams, particularly a brand new expansion team, was always going to be difficult,” Eales told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday. “This gives us that chance to be as competitive as we can from the start, which is what we’ve been trying to do as we build Atlanta United. So we’re very excited about today’s announcement.”
Cannon and Eales wouldn’t commit on Wednesday to a set timeline for the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which United will share with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. The club had previously targeted a June 1 opening date for the downtown stadium, but Cannon hinted that the exact date of the Atlanta United opener at Mercedes-Benz Stadium could potentially come in late June or early July, with the exact date dependent on the specifics of the MLS schedule.
Eales said that Atlanta’s contract with Georgia Tech for use of Bobby Dodd Stadium runs until the end of July. He said that the deal runs that long as a contingency plan.
Atlanta United, which recently announced they have already sold 22,000 season tickets for the 2017 season, will have to make some modifications to get Bobby Dodd Stadium ready to host soccer matches.
The football stadium has natural grass surface, but the grass field doesn’t extend all the way to the stands, with an artificial turf apron filling the area between the football sidelines and seating area. Atlanta United will rip up that turf and replace it with natural grass in order to facilitate a field wide enough for soccer.
Atlanta head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who was hired last week, was consulted in the decision to play at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and approved of the move.
The decision should also make life a bit easier for Atlanta’s players off the field. Nearly every player on the team’s 2017 roster will have to relocate to Georgia ahead of next season, and Eales mentioned that the club thought it’d be easier for them to get settled in Atlanta with the benefit of not having to travel to away matches every weekend for the first three months of the season.
The club doesn’t yet know if it will open up the entirety of the 55,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium, which is located just two miles north of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, or tarp off certain areas of the building to limit capacity for matches.
“We haven’t [decided] yet, we’ve still got a bit of time to work through things but I will say it’s a bit of a champagne problem,” Eales said regarding the question of whether or not to limit capacity. “With the way ticket sales are going at the moment, we feel like we’ll be in a pretty good place in terms of having Bobby Dodd as a stadium.
“Actually it’s almost the reverse, Bobby Dodd was attractive to us because it can have the capability of holding 55,000 fans. So we’re in a position where we feel like we’ve got a venue that will allow us to have the support base that it looks like we’ll be getting in Atlanta for our games, which was important to us.”