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Thursday September 3rd, 2015 11:18AM

Blank, MLS ready to bring top-level soccer to Atlanta

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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ATLANTA -- He was feted as "Uncle Arthur" on Wednesday, but for Atlanta's soccer fans, he might as well be "Saint Arthur."

Arthur Blank, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed and Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber united on Wednesday to make it official: America's top soccer league is on it's way to Atlanta. And, according to Garber and Reed, it is due in large part to the man whose name was chanted loud and long by fans that made their way into the celebration that took place just yards from where the new team will begin play as the league's 22nd team in 2017.

"We always believed the success of MLS would be driven by visionary and committed owners, world class stadiums and very ethnically-diverse environments and cities and very passionate groups," Garber said. "We have all of that and we have more here in the city of Atlanta."

Blank, already owner of the Atlanta Falcons, spear-headed the rise of the city's first MLS franchise, becoming one of a number of NFL owners that also lead MLS teams.

"We will do everything we can to focus on the fans, to create the right atmosphere, have the best coaches and players," said Blank, who added that he had been interested in bringing the MLS to Atlanta for a decade. "Whatever resources it's going to take to get a winning tradition on the field and off the field, you have that commitment from me."

Stating that the sport of soccer meant much to himself and his family emotionally, Blank added that the new team might not have been possible without the decision to build the new $1.2 billion stadium that will replace the Georgia Dome as the Atlanta Falcons' new home, as well as the to-be-named MLS franchise.

Garber concurred, adding that MLS -- which had been anxious for a home in Atlanta -- was thrilled at the prospects of playing in the new venue, which also hopes to draw soccer matches outside of MLS contests, including international matches.

"This will be one of the great stadiums in the world," Garber said. "This will be an epicenter for soccer in the Southeast, not just for MLS, but for other games."

Blank says his teams' new stadium, which will hold almost 71,000 fans for NFL contests, will modulate for MLS games, shrinking to a capacity of roughly 29,000.

"This incredible stadium was designed to accommodate football and international football," said Blank, who added that the MLS team will get the first shot at playing in the facility once it is completed, as the season will coincide with the venue's opening. "It will be open-air. It will be played on artificial turf. But we'll bring in real grass when required for international matches. ... We will also make sure there will never be an MLS game where football lines will show on the field."

Atlanta has already shown an appetite for international soccer and professional soccer on a smaller scale, though sustained success of a large-scale professional team has eluded the city in the past. And despite the Atlanta Chiefs of the original NASL winning a league title in 1968, the team, and league, disbanded before the NASL reformed again in 2011.

The MLS has thrived, however, expanding from an original 10 teams in 1996 to 19 franchises currently playing in two countries (the United States and Canada). Two more expansion teams will also begin play in 2015 in Orlando and a second New York team.

Atlanta has hosted both international friendlies and club matches between teams such as Italy's A.C. Milan and Mexico's Club America. Meanwhile, last month's contest between Nigeria and Mexico at the Georgia Dome drew over 68,000 attendees.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Silverbacks, which play in the NASL, reached last year's NASL championship -- dubbed the Soccer Bowl -- and played in front of more than 5,000 fans at Silverbacks Park.

"This state has deep soccer roots. And we hope this club can have a close relationship with the Silverbacks," Garber said. "The youth market here is one of the largest in the entire country, producing national team players and MLS players."

Now Blank hopes that the soccer-playing population of metro Atlanta will become die-hard soccer fans -- fans that he said will have input on the team's name, badge and color scheme.

"So much of soccer's success in the U.S. and worldwide is dependent upon local fans and how they feel," Blank said. "We want our fans to feel like part of our family."

It was a jubilant family on Wednesday, as members of suddenly-sprouted supporters groups crammed into the announcement venue, banging drums and raising chants to create an entertaining atmosphere.

"People don't have an appreciation for how many soccer fans there are here," Reed said. "That kind of energy is there."

Much of that energy has been driven by Blank, and Reed believes his diligence -- combined with the fanbase in place around metro Atlanta -- will help the new franchise succeed.

"Leadership matters, and the owner matters. I didn't decide to support building a 1.2 billion stadium prior to my re-election for nothing," Reed said. "What I knew is that we had an owner who had built a great american business (Home Depot), and we had an owner that had taken an organization that had real tough times and converted that into a world class organization, and I know that he will do that with this MLS team."
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