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Don Garber: Atlanta United are the biggest story in professional sports this year

The MLS commissioner was impressed by what he saw in Atlanta on Saturday.

MLS: All-Star Game Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A few years ago, Don Garber was an admitted skeptic when it came to having an MLS team in Atlanta.

Fast-forward to the team’s inaugural game on March 5, and then to Saturday, where 70,234 spectators - a league record for a standalone match - filed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to watch Atlanta United play Orlando City, and it’s safe to say the MLS commissioner is a believer.

“Awe-inspiring. It’s absolutely spectacular,” Garber said. “It’s such a massive structure. It just is absolutely incredible. It’s a very exciting day for me and the league.”

Garber spoke of the league’s plans several years back to expand its reach past its southernmost team of D.C. United. The seed was planted in Orlando, where the team has enjoyed great support. But before meeting Arthur Blank, he was a little unsure if it would work in Atlanta.

“Then we met with Arthur, who was so bullish about this city and this market. We were skeptical at first, and Arthur looked us all from the league office to our owners and said, ‘My city will turn out for a great team with a great brand.’ He’s overdelivered.

“There’s all sorts of records being broken, and it’s a great testament to Arthur’s vision and his execution. He’s got a terrific organization in Darren (Eales) and (AMB Group CEO) Steve Cannon. It’s a great moment.”

With Atlanta’s success, Garber feels that the league’s potential is limitless.

“We never expected this to happen. Arthur did. Darren and the staff did. But we’re continuing to have experiences like this that are defying everybody’s expectations, and it defied mine. So when I come in here and I’m on the field, looking at the supporters’ section and the spike ceremony and the supporters, I want to remind myself to suck it in, take a deep breath, and remember that this is the beginning of even greater things to happen in our league.”

So is the team the MLS’ biggest storyline of 2017? Garber thinks it’s beyond that.

“It is. I think it’s the story of pro sports. I’m proud to say that. I think this stadium will be the stadium of the year in our industry. I think this team will be the team of the year. It ought to be. It’s proving that it’s defying everybody’s expectations as to what soccer could be in this market.

“You’ve got a concert going on (Music Midtown) with 150,000 or so people. You’ve got the Braves playing. You have a sold-out stadium tomorrow (for the Falcons game)...and (a sold-out stadium) today. What a great statement about this city for people who live in this market.”

Some other quotes from Garber:

—Where does Atlanta and Mercedes-Benz Stadium land in the pecking order for potential hosts for a successful unified bid between the U.S., Canada and Mexico for 2026? Garber was tight-lipped about it, but he did admit that the city could stand as a potential site.

“That process is just starting,” he said. “Atlanta is a great soccer market. I don’t think there’s any question that this is a city that supports the sport. I would expect that they would be high on the list when that process gets finalized. This country has become a soccer nation, and Atlanta is one of the leading cities in that soccer nation, so I would feel pretty good about it if I were the city’s leaders.”

—Shorter-term, what about hosting the All-Star Game next year? Possibly, Garber responded.

“We’ve got some work to do. We’re spending a lot of time thinking about that. I think this would be a great market to host. If we were to hold it here, I would expect we would break the record.”

—Garber also spoke briefly about VAR, saying that he felt “really good” about the system. Atlanta United were involved in several decisions involving VAR this past week.

“Early reviews have been strong. I’ve been impressed with the group. Howard doing a great job leading the effort.”