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Atlanta mentioned in MLS expansion plans

Atlanta is one of several markets in the mix for the next round of Major League Soccer expansion, the Sports Business Daily reported Friday.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank submitted an expansion bid for the 2011 season but withdrew it earlier this year. The Falcons were involved in marketing and promotional efforts for last month’s friendly at the Georgia Dome between Mexico and Venezuela that drew more than 50,000 spectators in the first soccer match at the 14-year-old indoor facility.

Later on Friday, the New York Post quoted MLS commissioner Don Garber as saying he’s not concerned about watering down the quality of MLS, which currently has 15 teams and will grow to 18 by the start of the 2011 season. Geographic considerations appear to play a prominent role in expansion decisions:

“We’re not south of Washington, D.C. Markets like Atlanta, Carolina, Florida, we have to figure out how we capture another 50 million people in this country. . . .

“But you get east into the Midwest, we’re feeling a little weak there. We need a team in St. Louis, and we’re trying to figure out how to make that work.”

No firm timetable has been set for the next round of expansion, though it could come as early as 2013. MLS officials are scheduled to begin making more precise plans during the forthcoming All-Star break.

Jim Smith, the Falcons vice president for marketing, formerly was general manager of the Columbus Crew of MLS. That connection, as well as Atlanta’s long-held viability as a future market for the league, has kept the city on the MLS radar.

“We know Jim so well and that he knows that market,” Dan Courtemanche, the MLS vice president for communications, told Atlanta Soccer News after the June 24 match at the Dome. League and Falcons officials met during that week to further discuss expansion. “What we have now is an ongoing dialogue.

Atlanta Soccer News has contacted Falcons executives seeking comment on MLS expansion, but they have not responded.

MLS expanded into Seattle this season, will add Philadelphia to the fold next year and welcomes Vancouver and Portland in 2011.

Those three cities in the Pacific Northwest have been part of the second division United Soccer Leagues, where the Atlanta Silverbacks played until the franchise withdrew from competition for the 2009 season, citing the economy. Montreal also currently is playing in the USL, but owner Joey Saputo this spring made a personal visit to New York to meet with Garber about MLS expansion.

Courtemanche explained that for a city to be seriously considered for expansion, it must meet three criteria: it is regarded as an “international” city; it has a viable ownership group; and that it is a “passionate soccer market.”

The turnout at the first soccer match at the Georgia Dome made a good impression, but Courtemanche cautioned it was a “one-off event . . . It’s an opportunity for us to put our toe into this market.”

The city will play host to another international friendly on Wednesday at the Georgia Dome when AC Milan of Italy and Mexico’s Club América meet in the World Football Challenge. That match will be shown live on ESPN2.

MLS has been interested in returning the Southeast after franchises in Miami and Tampa Bay folded in 2002. In Birmingham, the mayor said plans for a new domed stadium could boost its MLS aspirations. But Atlanta and St. Louis, among other cities passed over previously, are likely to be considered ahead of new bidders.

The possibility of MLS in Atlanta may depend on Blank’s ability to get a new Falcons stadium he has long desired. The city’s formal venue proposal for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup will include information on both the Georgia Dome and a potential new Falcons facility. That proposal is due to the U.S. Soccer Federation July 29.

Earlier this week Blank sold minority stakes in the Falcons to four individual investors, but he still retains 90 percent of the franchise.

10 comments

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[...] Despite the long-standing obstacles for an MLS presence in Atlanta — namely, the lack of an appropriate stadium — the city has always been on the league’s radar, from the very beginning. It continues to be uttered by Garber, who has been increasingly adamant that MLS eventually should locate in the Southeast. [...]

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