Major League Soccer names Atlanta as 22nd franchise, set for 2017 debut

MLS is headed to the ATL.

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber announced on Wednesday that Atlanta has been awarded the league’s 22nd team, the culmination of six years of courtship between the league and the one of the nation’s most diverse and influential markets.

The expansion team – which will begin play in the 2017 season – will be owned by Arthur Blank, the co-founder of The Home Depot and the owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. A state-of-the-art retractable roof stadium in downtown Atlanta will house both the Falcons and the new MLS franchise on artificial turf, and is expected to host more than 29,000 fans for soccer matches upon its completion.

“We are thrilled to welcome Atlanta to Major League Soccer as our 22nd team,” Garber said in a statement.  “Atlanta is one of the largest and most diverse markets in North America and has a rich tradition in sports and culture.

“And with Arthur Blank joining our ownership group, we are adding one of the most respected owners in professional sports. Arthur is deeply passionate about soccer and our quest to become one of the top professional soccer leagues in the world. We look forward to working with him and the entire Falcons organization on achieving this important goal.”

The Atlanta team’s name and logo, along with the coaching and administrative staff, will be announced at a later date. Fans will be asked to provide their suggestions for the team name.

Blank and his associates first contacted MLS about a potential franchise in Atlanta in 2008, and the group’s research brought them to six different MLS markets to discuss club business operations and tour stadiums. They also spoke with additional six MLS organizations about their intentions to bring big league soccer to Atlanta, already home to organizations in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

“We are very excited to bring a Major League Soccer team to Atlanta,” Blank said in a statement. "We are going to build a first-class organization on and off the field that will be a source of pride for the entire community, and we believe our downtown stadium will become a destination for soccer fans throughout the Southeast for many years to come."

Greater Atlanta has a metro population of 5.5 million residents, according to US Census data, making it the ninth-biggest metropolitan area in the United States.

Although Atlanta has never fielded a team in MLS, the state of Georgia has produced a wealth of talented players in the past 15 years. US national team World Cup veterans Clint Mathis (Conyers), Josh Wolff (Stone Mountain) and Ricardo Clark (Jonesboro) all hail from the area, while USMNT hopefuls and rising MLS stars Sean Johnson (Liburn) and Jack McInerney (Alpharetta) also call the Atlanta region home.

Atlanta’s soccer tradition also includes for the Chiefs of the old NASL, who featured English veteran Phil Woosnam and South African forward Kaizer Motaung and won the league's very first championship in 1968. In the late 1980s, the Atlanta Attack indoor team played in the NPSL before relocating to Kansas City in 1991. More currently, the Atlanta Silverbacks – who were founded in 1994 as the Atlanta Ruckus – compete in the new NASL, the current second division of the North American soccer pyramid.

During the last few years, crowds of more than 50,000 fans have regularly attended international soccer matches in Atlanta, including a crowd of more than 70,000 fans for an international friendly between Mexico and Nigeria last month.

"Georgia is home to some of the most passionate sports fans in the country," Georgia Governor Nathan Deal said in a statement. "And no sport has grown in popularity during the last two decades as much as soccer. I expect game days for our new team in Atlanta to be colorful and festive events, with people from all over the state making the trip to the state capital to support the team."  

Added Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed: “Atlanta has long been an international city with a vibrant and diverse population. An MLS soccer team competing in our new state-of-the-art facility could not be a more fitting and welcome addition as we continue on our path towards being one of the leading cities in the world.”

The Atlanta appointment marks the third expansion announcement for MLS in the past year, following moves to add New York City FC and Orlando City SC in 2015. A Miami franchise, to be owned by a group headed by retired Manchester United and LA Galaxy icon David Beckham, is also expected to be added to the league in the near future, with club officials expecting to join Atlanta in their 2017 debut.

The league plans to add a 24th team by 2020.