Atlanta reportedly close to getting MLS team, as league says, “Enh, soccer-only stadiums not so important after all”

When MLS commissioner Don Garber announced plans to add four more teams this decade and create the most humongoid soccer league on earth, the assumption was that next to follow would be a massive bidding war among cities to build soccer-only stadiums, since that’s what Garber’s always demanded before and there are tons of mid-sized cities to choose from. Instead: Atlanta, Georgia, come on down!

Local and national reports say MLS is relatively close to an agreement with Falcons owner Arthur Blank to bring an MLS expansion team to Atlanta, one of the five new franchises coming in the next seven years. The two would share the billion-dollar retractable domed stadium—aka, “The Sphincter”—that’s scheduled to be completed in 2017…

The lack of a soccer-specific stadium doesn’t appear to be an issue for MLS. The Atlanta stadium will be designed to accommodate soccer, with a wide pitch and separate locker rooms, and the upper deck can easily be closed down to reduce capacity. A similar situation is in place in Vancouver, where the Whitecaps play in a CFL stadium.

Also Seattle, where the Sounders play in an NFL stadium. Still, coming on top of the announcement of New York City F.C. with only a baseball stadium to play in for now, this seems to indicate a shift in strategy for Garber: Instead of doling out teams one at a time to whoever coughs up a soccer-specific stadium, just grab whatever money it can for expansion franchises ASAP and sweat the home field stuff later. (Of the other two new teams rumored to be next in line, Orlando is apparently still dependent on a new soccer-only stadium, while nobody’s sure where Miami would play, just that David Beckham would own it and what he wants, he gets.)

Whether this is because Garber is looking for quick cash now that franchise values seem high or what, I’ll leave to somebody with a more thorough understanding of MLS finances. Still, if this Atlanta thing pans out, you have to wonder what cities that are currently considering building soccer-only stadiums because their teams say they need them — I’m looking at you, Washington, D.C. — will think of the fact that sharing a football stadium is now apparently A-OK with MLS. Stadium blackmail is tough.

Garber: MLS to keep adding teams like there’s no tomorrow

During halftime of last night’s MLS All-Star Game — in which the league’s best players were trounced by a club team that finished 7th in the Italian league last season — MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that the league will expand by another four teams, to 24, by the year 2020.

That would just continue the crazy pace that MLS has been on since 2005, when it had only ten teams; NYC F.C. is set to become the league’s 20th team in 2015, meaning the league will keep on adding one team a year (with one year off, maybe) through the end of the decade. Possible expansion targets could include Miami, Atlanta, Sacramento, Orlando, Detroit, Minneapolis, and probably a few others that the AP and I are both forgetting.

This is likely to mean more attempts at stadium deals, which are already burbling under the surface in many of those cities (Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson declared his renewed support for a soccer stadium there earlier this week). On the one hand, the pre-announcement of so much expansion should actually give more leverage to city mayors to drive a harder bargain on stadium deals, since if MLS needs to come up with sites for four more teams, they’re going to have to take pretty much whatever stadiums they can get. On the other hand, city mayors don’t really seem to understand leverage, so it probably won’t matter.

Garber: MLS talks with Queens “at finish line,” otherwise known as starting gate

Lesson #367 in why it’s important to read the whole article, not just the headline: MLS commissioner Don Garber gave his state-of-the-league press conference yesterday in advance of Saturday’s MLS Cup, and declared that discussions with New York City over a new stadium in Queens are “at the finish line.” And what exactly did he mean by that?

“There’s a lot of work that needs to happen to finalize our agreement with New York City over our use of the land and our ability to lease that land to build a stadium,” he said. “I do believe that we will resolve that shortly. I can’t put any timetable on that, but we are at the finish line. Once we are there, we’ve got to go into a formal approval process that all developers have to go through in New York City. That will take some time. We need to reach an agreement with the city, with the local community and with the state of New York on replacing the land that we will be utilizing for the stadium.”

In addition, MLS is negotiating with the Mets to use the parking lots adjacent to Citi Field.

So basically, MLS thinks that it will soon arrive at an agreement with City Hall on a stadium proposal, which will then proceed through the ULURP process, which will involve nine months of public hearings before any deal can be finalized. So while getting Mayor Michael Bloomberg on board is an important step, it’s also arguably the easiest one, and a lot could still happen, especially in a year where city council speaker Christine Quinn is going to be involved in a tight race to replace Bloomberg as mayor.

Garber, meanwhile, went on to discuss possible expansion teams in Atlanta (“If [a new Falcons stadium] is able to come together, [we'll] try to figure out how an MLS team could be part of their plans”) and Orlando (“at some point if they are able to finalize a stadium plan that makes sense, we would be very interested in working with them”), as well as stadium campaigns for D.C. United (“I believe there is new momentum in D.C.”) and the New England Revolution (“though there is nothing new to report, the family is focused on it”). So basically, every current or potential team wants a new soccer-only stadium to play in, and damned if he’s going to say anything negative about any of them.

As for who’d pay for them, Garber said of New England that “we are looking for public support up in that area because of the cost of developing a project there,” while saying that D.C. United’s owners have “the capacity to be able to put more private equity into a deal, and that makes the opportunity far more viable during these economic times than perhaps it would have been when [the team] was looking for an enormous amount of public support.” You can read something into that if you’d like, but it mostly just comes down to “We’re looking for as much public cash as we can get our hands on, but we realize we’re MLS and can’t throw our weight around as much as some leagues,” which has pretty much been his modus operandi all along.

So really, not much new here at all. We now return you to your regularly scheduled David Beckham wild rumors, already in progress.