The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Atlanta, an MLS expansion club is under construction

The yet-to-be named stadium sits next to Georgia Dome. (Courtesy Atlanta Falcons)
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ATLANTA — In the shadows of the Georgia Dome, where the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals will take place tonight, the framework of a new stadium is rising. The NFL’s Falcons are the primary tenants, but when the superstructure featuring a retractable roof inspired by the Pantheon’s oculus opens in 2017, a Major League Soccer team will move in, as well.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank is bankrolling the organization, known as Atlanta United FC. Darren Eales, a former Tottenham Hotspur executive, is overseeing the front office. Carlos Bocanegra, a former U.S. World Cup captain, is in charge of the soccer side. Club officials say season ticket deposits are approaching 24,000, which is larger than MLS’s 2015 attendance average.

“I had only been through the airport,” Bocanegra, a California native, said of his prior Atlanta experiences. “I wasn’t familiar with the South. The city is really cool. I wasn’t expecting it. And on the soccer side, the excitement around town, there is such a buzz around the city, people are so hungry for it. Before I had taken the job, the fact that they had over 17,000 season tickets committed, I was like, ‘This is going to be unbelievable.’

“We have a chance to be unbelievable.”

The early buzz contradicts the perception of Atlanta being a soft pro sports market — the NHL team moved and the Braves and Hawks have had attendance issues over the years. It also belies the belief the South does not care about soccer. Until this week, the U.S. national team had not visited since 1977 and MLS did not seem to give the city much thought until Blank took interest in 2008.

For MLS, the club will downsize capacity at the 71,000-seat stadium to 29,322 by using mechanical drapes to block the upper sections in order to create an intimate atmosphere. However, with season ticket deposits surging, Blank said, “we won’t do anything to suppress the numbers at all. … Our aspirations are to fill up the place.”

In some 19 months, United FC will play its first official match. Minneapolis-St. Paul is tentatively scheduled to launch in 2017 or ’18, a second Los Angeles team is targeting ’18 and, if a stadium deal in Little Havana comes to fruition, Miami would start in a few years.

Like the new stadium under construction, Atlanta’s club is starting from scratch; it does not have a lower-division team to use for top-tier purposes, like Orlando City did this season and other expansion outfits have done in the past.

By next summer, the organization aims to open an elite youth academy, which ultimately would feed aspiring professionals to the first team, and hire a head coach. Given MLS’s peculiar ways, someone with league experience is vital to the staff, though not necessarily as the head coach, both Bocanegra and Eales said.

“It’s a different league,” Eales said, citing the salary cap, numerous player acquisition mechanisms and the league’s centralized structure. “In that sort of framework, it brings challenges.”

Bocanegra is familiar with the MLS set-up after starting his career with the Chicago Fire and ending it with Chivas USA. In between, he played in two World Cups and made 110 international appearances.

With a long run-up to the inaugural season, the club will not sign players for quite some time. However, Bocanegra said he is watching matches around the world and monitoring players who might fit into Atlanta’s plans.

“Things change so much from six months to a year, whether guys are in form, our of form, in favor with their club, out of contract,” Bocanegra said. “At the moment, we are trying to have a broad view.”

Probably in September, “Darren and I will sit down and start hammering out a plan and potentially start getting a semi-short list of [designated player] targets.”

Bocanegra will also be heavily focused on the academy, which the club hopes will attract teenage prospects from throughout the Southeast.

As for the club’s strategy in building a roster and where well-known players fit in, Eales said:

“We’re in a situation where we have got the level of interest that we don’t necessarily have to sign a player for a scenario where we want to drum up interest. We don’t have to sign a name for the sake of signing a name. … There might be eight internationals that through our contact we managed to get from Asia, South America and Europe, and they might not be names, per se, but they may soon be names. If we want a winning team, we don’t necessarily want to go down the model of taking players who are out of contract at the end of their careers. If the right person is available, then maybe his leadership is worth bringing into the mix. But I think our focus will be more on the younger players.”

Blank also emphasized the youth initiative but also expressed his ambition.

“By nature, I am not the most patient person in the world. I don’t think Darren is either, so we’re not going to sit on this as an ‘expansion team’ and communicate to our fans, either through our actions or by our play, that, ‘Well, we are going to try hard but it’s going to take two or three years to build a winning team.’ Our aspiration is to have a winning team from the get-go. I will be pushing them hard and they will be pushing themselves hard. The emphasis will be building long term but winning short term.”

Eales, a Brown University graduate who played briefly with the Hampton Roads Mariners and Hershey Wildcats, has observed New York City FC’s expansion growing pains this year. Like Atlanta, NYCFC began from the ground level. But with the financial might of Manchester City and the New York Yankees behind it, the club spent big on glamour signings (Spain’s David Villa, England’s Frank Lampard and Italy’s Andrea Pirlo).

“You look at New York City and their resources and the money they’ve thrown at designated players,” Eales said. “At the moment, they are still finding it difficult because frankly it’s hard in sports to bring a team together.

“We might think there is a player with all of the talent in the world and the fans are saying you should bring him in, [but] you know in your gut feeling that for team chemistry, perhaps he’s not the player you want. You might want to take someone else who is not perhaps as high profile but you know will fit into the team and create that team chemistry.”

In terms of persuading players from abroad to sign, Eales said MLS has opened minds.

“The player perception now is totally different. They see the fans, they see the level of interest in America. It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s a career-ending place to go.’ It’s making our job a lot easier.”