Major League Soccer awarded their 23rd franchise to Atlanta on Wednesday. The team -- which will eventually be named by the fans -- will begin play in 2017 and share their home with the Atlanta Falcons, a new $1 billion, retractable roof stadium in downtown. (You can watch the team be unveiled here.)
It won't be perfect for soccer -- they'll apparently be installing some sort of curtain system to close off most of the upper deck and grass purists are a bit worked up over another artificial turf field joining the circuit -- but it should be workable. At the very least, it's worlds better than the current stadium situations faced by fellow expansion entrants Miami and New York City. And that should be cause for concern.
Neither New York City FC nor the still unnamed Miami franchise are anywhere particularly close to finding stadium solutions. Technically speaking, Miami's entrance to MLS is actually dependent on finding a solution, but no one is openly admitting that David Beckham's group is actually in danger of losing their team. Their focus is currently on figuring out a solution that would see the Miami team playing in a stadium near the port.
They've got some very pretty stadium mock-ups and it's not hard to imagine it all being a success, but they've also got some significant hurdles to clear before they can break ground. Although they are pitching this as privately financed, Beckham and his group are asking the state of Florida for some tax breaks. It should come as little surprise that Florida politicians will need some convincing before they give public assistance to a bunch of extremely rich people.
The bigger hurdle, though, is from an assortment of business groups that aren't too keen on adding a stadium to the port. Together, it's all enough to at least acknowledge that nothing is guaranteed there.
NYCFC's problems might be bigger, depending on how you look at them. The stadium idea that MLS had been working on -- and spent millions to make happen -- was abandoned almost as soon as the New York Yankees and Manchester City officially became the owners. The thinking since then has been that NYCFC would be playing somewhere in the Bronx.
It now turns out that NYCFC will, in fact, be playing in the Bronx, but not in their own stadium. The latest news -- which will apparently be made official soon -- is that NYCFC will be playing at Yankee Stadium. The plan is to be there three years, but with no land to build their own stadium, the reality is that this is an indefinite solution.
Soccer has been played at Yankee Stadium, so this is hardly unprecedented. But let's not kid ourselves: This is a virtual worst-case scenario. Not only does the Yankees' season completely overlap with NYCF's, but the seating configuration and dirt infield are going to create visual and logistical issues unlike anything MLS has ever faced on a regular basis.
By comparison, then, maybe Atlanta expansion doesn't seem quite as awful as I suggested a couple months ago. But let's not pretend that's anything close to a ringing endorsement.
While the stadium situation in Atlanta is hardly ideal, it would not be unprecedented for it to work just fine. The Seattle Sounders are probably the best example of making a big stadium work, but the Vancouver Whitecaps are in a similar situation -- they play in a retractable roof stadium in downtown in which curtains are used to close off more than half of the seating for soccer matches -- and are drawing solid numbers. The Whitecaps average around 20,000 per game, which seems like a reasonable bench mark for Atlanta to shoot for.
Yet, there's still this sense that MLS is reverting to old habits during this current round of expansion.
MLS has done a lot of positive things since contracting following the 2001 season -- only one of the nine teams added since 2005 has been well short of a success -- this current round seems to be going in a subtly different direction. With Orlando as the obvious exception, MLS seems to be looking mostly at markets based on their size rather than a groundswell of support. Three of the four new teams will essentially be looking to build fan bases from scratch -- although Atlanta has promised to work with the existing NASL franchise -- and trying to do so in extremely crowded professional sports market places.
There are also very strong indications that MLS could be coming to Minnesota -- yet another market in which at least three of the four "big" leagues are already represented -- where there appears to be competing interests, one from the NFL and the other from a joint bid by the Minnesota Twins and the NASL's Minnesota United. The NFL bid envisions playing in a dual-purpose stadium similar to Atlanta. The Twins-United bid proposes building a soccer-specific stadium. MLS fans are undoubtedly crossing fingers and praying to their various gods that the Twins-United bid ends up winning out.
One way or another, this round of expansion will be a referendum on just how far MLS has come since its founding. Atlanta, New York City and Miami are already crowded sports markets that have shown only tepid interest in MLS. If the league succeeds, it could herald a new era of prosperity and security quite unlike anything we've seen before. But if any of these markets fail, it will be a reminder of just how far MLS has to go before it can reach the heights so many of us envision.