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Atlanta United setting example for MLS expansion franchises

Fans cheer before the start of a press conference announcing the city will be getting a Major League Soccer expansion team, Wednesday, April 16, 2014, in Atlanta. MLS announced its newest franchise Wednesday, unveiling an expansion team for Atlanta that will begin play in 2017 at the city's new retractable roof stadium. The team will be owned by Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. He donned a traditional soccer scarf and was serenaded by a burgeoning fan group that calls itself "Terminus Legion," a reference to the city's former name. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
(AP Photo/David Goldman)

When the MLS was initially announced in Atlanta, it was met with a ton of skepticism.

Despite being backed by prominent Atlanta businessman Arthur Blank, founder of The Home Depot, and owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, the team was deemed as a certain failure. Critics cited the lack of attendance at Hawks, Braves and Thrashers games throughout the years. They reminded us that Atlanta is a football town, concerned with the local college teams and the Falcons. They said soccer would never work in the southeast.

Now, it appears Atlanta United will make critics eat their words.

The team that many said no one would support has sold more than 22,000 season tickets, a record for an MLS expansion franchise, including 3,000 reserved for supporters, giving Atlanta one of the largest supporters’ sections in the league. That kind of buzz surrounding an MLS expansion side is unheard of.

To put it in perspective, NYCFC, a team in America’s largest city, with a huge soccer fan base, and international stars like Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, managed 14,000 season ticket holders in their inaugural season, which was widely regarded as an impressive number. Atlanta has yet to play a game or put a full squad together, and they have nearly doubled that.

The club has recently announced that they will play their first few home games at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium in downtown Atlanta. Not only does this provide a downtown, central location for the club’s inaugural games, but at 55.000 capacity, Bobby Dodd should be rocking for Atlanta’s league debut. Additionally, Atlanta United will effectively have two home openers, one at Bobby Dodd, and one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium when it is completed, which can only boost the profile of the club.

In addition to their business success, Atlanta is also finding success in their front office, making one of the splashiest managerial hires in MLS history. Argentine manager Gerardo Martino will take the reins for the club in their inaugural season.

Martino, or Tata, as he has been affectionately called throughout his career, brings perhaps the most impressive coaching resume of anyone in MLS. After a number of years bouncing around a variety of South American sides, Tata found a home at Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario, Argentina, his boyhood club. With Newell’s, Tata took on a side facing relegation, and turned them into the Argentine champions in just one year. Additionally, he was able to take his side to the semifinal of the Copa Libertadores, the most prominent club soccer competition in South America.

From there, he went on to succeed Tito Villanova at Barcelona. Despite winning only the Spanish SuperCup with the club, Tata learned the famed tiki-taka style at Barcelona, which he took to his new job as manager of the Argentine national team.

During two years with the Argentine national team, Tata utilized his incredible talent to make two consecutive Copa America finals. While he will likely be remembered for losing those two finals, reaching the final of a major tournament in two consecutive years is very impressive. Atlanta fans will hope he brings that championship pedigree to their new club.

When you combine the business and managerial successes of Atlanta United, it’s clear that this club is ready to usher in a new era of MLS. No club in history has had the buzz that Atlanta continues to generate week in and week out, which should have MLS fans very excited for their start next season.

Future expansion teams should certainly take note of what Atlanta is doing. Without even playing a game, they’ve quickly become a marquee club in MLS.

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