Atlanta United FC is a year and a half away from kicking off their inaugural season in 2017 and things are rolling along quite smoothly for the fledgling club. It's been a whirlwind year for AUFC, and yet there's never been a shred of doubt that Arthur Blank's new project is moving full steam ahead.
Major League Soccer is at a stage in its existence where expansion talk is as common as Robert Lewandowski finding the back of the net. New teams launched this year with New York City FC and Orlando City SC. Future launches include our very own AUFC, as well as a second Los Angeles squad, the entrance of NASL side Minnesota United FC, and a possible venture headlined by David Beckham on South Beach.
This year's batch of "City" squads might not exactly be top of the table, but there's no denying the level of success they've experienced at the ticket gate. Orlando City is averaging nearly 32,000 in their temporary home at the Citrus Bowl, while NYC brings in nearly 29,000 per match at Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, Atlanta United has quietly secured an impressive number of season ticket deposits. As of July, the club had nearly 24,000 commitments.
Orlando City has grand plans for a privately funded stadium. Having spent this entire season in the newly renovated Citrus Bowl, Orlando City expects to debut their gorgeous new facility later in the 2016 season. The 25,500 seater will feature two levels of terraces on all four sides with a canopy roof to block out that Florida sun. It's extremely easy to envision this facility selling out on a weekly basis.
Despite this recent expansion success, there's no denying that Major League Soccer has experienced a number of stumbling blocks for nearly all of its latest expansion sites. Most recently, NYCFC launched into the league without so much as a clue as to where they would permanently play their matches. It was commented during their recent game against Toronto that the club hopes to be in their own stadium within the next five years. Searches continue across the five boroughs to find a site, but neither a preferred location nor a timetable has been formally set. MLS launching a second New York team is a clear example they wanted a derby rival to the Red Bulls and wanted to get a team within the city proper.
NYC may have been given a team without a stadium, however, Miami's inability to do so has long been its achilles heel. Beckham's Miami project continues to be a massive question mark, as it has been for the last year and a half. The latest pitch is always that "progress is being made," and yet hiccups continue to delay an official announcement. While it does appear a site has been selected -- next to the Miami Marlins baseball stadium -- it comes with a laundry list of restrictive terms. A report from the Miami Herald suggests the Marlins will have extensive control over many aspects of the proposed soccer stadium, including design architecture, advertising, as well as which dates may be available to book events.
Meanwhile, the newly named LAFC squad seems to be moving in the right direction, albeit very slowly. An impressive list of over twenty investors includes names such as Vincent Tan, Henry Nguyen, Nomar Garciaparra, Mia Hamm, and Magic Johnson. An ambitious stadium plan calls for a quarter of a billion dollars to be spent on the Sports Arena site near the LA Memorial Coliseum. However, latest reports indicate a further push back to 2019 is a possibility, despite already delaying the launch from alongside AUFC in 2017 to 2018.
Moving northward, plans continue to be murky for Minnesota United. Announced as a new expansion team in March, the NASL squad beat out the Vikings bid, and intend to launch in 2018. The Vikings plan was extremely similar to Atlanta United in that it would feature a brand new stadium designed with soccer in mind, alongside the primary NFL tenants. Minnesota United's original plans to build an open air facility next to the downtown baseball stadium fell through and current plans propose a site in nearby St. Paul.
With all of this uncertainty, one might wonder, is Major League Soccer acting too prematurely by announcing expansion teams? Shouldn't the league wait until all of the moving parts come together prior to awarding expansion franchises? There's currently so much volatility with expansion that it's impossible to forecast which of these upcoming clubs will truly field a squad in the coming seasons.
Enter Atlanta United FC.
Atlanta has been the club for the next wave of expansion that's a "sure thing." Announced in April of 2014, the biggest hurdle AUFC might have to overcome will be deciding whether it wants to use black or white shorts with its planned AC Milan style kit. On a more serious note, Atlanta United will have to decide if it can move forward with its preferred DeKalb County training facility, or if it has to default to the Cobb County "Plan B." Arthur Blank has made the big splashes with hiring former Tottenham exec Darren Eales, as well as former United States captain Carlos Bocanegra. There hasn't been a single question regarding the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The new building will be built with United in mind from the start and feature retractable seating for a full width field, a retro-fitting mechanism enclosing the upper deck for intimacy, as well as a pitch that will never have football lines.
The colors of the club have always been red, black, and gold. Atlanta is so far the only expansion team that boasts both a name and a logo. An impressive brand launching event was attended by approximately 4,500 invite-only founding members. An extensive academy is planned to grow the youth initiative in the metro area.
There is no doubt that Atlanta United will begin play in 2017. All other possible expansion franchises have major questions left to answer. Neither Los Angeles FC nor the Miami franchise have any semblance of a front office, nor a badge to show off the team colors around town. None of the three expansion sides have broken ground on their planned stadiums, yet. For these reasons, it's impressive how far ahead of the pack Arthur Blank's team is and how aggressively it's attacking the 2017 launch. I recall listening to Darren Eales speak in front of maybe fifty people at a meet and greet at Fado Irish Pub downtown late last November. He described a club with so many ambitious plans and goals. Atlanta wanted to follow the lead of Seattle, LA, and Portland. Eales went on saying he wanted Atlanta to be bigger and better than those clubs.
There's no way to know where in the table Atlanta will finish come 2017, but you can be sure they will be there. The new era of Atlanta United soccer has begun.