Why Atlanta's stadium reveal was a rare, watershed moment for Major League Soccer

Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

MLS' history is surprisingly short on showcase events in major markets. Sunday gave us one.

So many things happened through Major League Soccer’s first decade that were absolutely essential, the early nuts and bolts in a burgeoning building. Markets came on-line, stadium initiatives lurched forward, stars did their thing to provide headlines and occasional razmataz.

As necessary and important as these steps were, they didn’t always feel big in a larger way.

Some moments or milepost happenings resonated regionally, and a few even kicked up a national fuss; David Beckham’s days in MLS are the obvious example. Seattle came on board in 2009 as Major League Soccer’s stake in the Pacific Northwest took hold.

But all too often, important developments in infrastructure or other fundamental elements of league growth lacked a certain weight. They didn’t always feel momentous beyond the usual soccer crowd.

Which helps underline something special that we saw in Georgia on Sunday. What happened as Atlanta United helped christened Mercedes-Benz Stadium on national TV felt truly big. Not just the occasion, the opening of a fabulous new ground. The market itself feels right; 45,000-plus fans poured into the building and then poured out the passion for a club they have clearly, quickly embraced.

A former president, local man Jimmy Carter, was even on hand for the moment.

MLS has such a long season, and while the league and its broadcast partners try hard to make a bunch of weeks along the way feel important (“It’s Rivalry Week! Again!”), the truth is MLS just doesn’t have a bunch of these big-feel occasions. Sunday’s sure was one.

When MLS markets pop

Markets popping the way Atlanta’s has mean everything to MLS. If you’ve tracked the club through its opening few months, through the construction of its state-of-the-art practice facility and while cranking out ticket sales in its temporary home at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, you know this thing has popped like shook-up champagne.

We talk a lot in soccer circles about vehicles to push MLS growth. It’s the usual stuff: Spend more on players, or get the refereeing right. A personal favorite is the specious theory that MLS will never be truly big-time until a club wins CONCACAF Champions League. (Spoiler: it just ain’t true.)

But that stuff is mostly just detail. Stripped to the core, growth happens as TV ratings improve (driving the next round of national TV contracts), as the league’s national footprint keeps growing and as soccer stadiums (with the critical revenue they generate) continue opening. Past that, having big, successful markets like Atlanta is where the magic happens. Being important to more people, in important cities, is what really gooses bigger-picture growth.

Atlanta already has a very good chance of becoming the first team since 2008 other than Seattle to lead the league in attendance, so the city’s warm embrace was already a big story. When Atlanta got into its splashy new building and then won in such a dominant way, 3-0 over FC Dallas, it all came together so beautifully.

It felt significant in bigger ways, but it hasn’t always happened thus.

Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

When Columbus Crew Stadium opened in 1998, for instance, it was enormously meaningful. It was the first stadium built specifically for MLS; Lamar Hunt’s tremendous leap of faith cannot be undervalued. It was certainly a critical moment in MLS circles and a great story in Columbus, but it just didn’t feel immediately, nationally important. After all, no one truly knew then if MLS would last; remember that it came so perilously close to shuttering late in 2001.

Same for other MLS venues. Avaya Stadium opened in San Jose two years ago. It’s a great place and absolutely critical for local success; teams typically hemorrhage money playing in someone else’s building, and locals are reluctant to take the operation seriously until it digs roots with a building of its own. But did it feel like something truly special was happening, the way it did when, say, Seattle opened with such a bang in 2009? Probably not.

Atlanta’s new palace and all the excitement around it will certainly be associated heavily with the NFL’s Falcons. But Atlanta United and its starburst means the MLS club feels part of all this, too.

The way club owner Arthur Blank, who also owns the Falcons, is treating the soccer team is also important. It signals to the market: we at the Falcons are treating MLS and Atlanta United as partners, as something important, so you should, too.

It’s a little like New York City FC feeling bigger and more important in the market because the club plays in a place that comes with some historical heft (Yankee Stadium). Of course, Atlanta’s situation is much better because United looks and feel like co-owner rather than just renter.

All stadium developments are important. But …

Every new MLS stadium is obviously important, but in a way that every move is important in a sequence on the field of 20 passes before a big goal. Every pass was important, but we truly remember those last one or two, those moments of breathtaking flourish.

That’s how it is with Mercedes-Benz Stadium. While every MLS ground that gets built adds another brick of permanence to it all, nobody else in MLS plays in a $1.5 billion building, replete with all the bells, whistles and grandeur of this one. People are talking about the architecture and the fancy, eight-petal retractable roof and the views from the floor-to-ceiling windows. For soccer, Atlanta United gets branded draping to cover the upper decks.

Super Bowls and big college football playoff contests will happen there. Maybe World Cup matches in 2026. The point is, the building will be front and center in Atlanta culture, and United will be part of that.

All of this is happening in a part of the country where MLS previously had precious little awareness. Until Orlando City’s arrival, the league was mostly just a rumor in the American Southeast. Orlando helped, but Georgia’s love affair feels even bigger. Atlanta represents the largest TV market in that part of the country (No. 8 nationally, which means MLS just covered its only hole in America’s top 10), and in so many ways, it’s the cultural capital of the Southeast.

None of this means every MLS club needs to target a domed stadium or look to link up with the NFL and all its hefty attachments. Not at all. Orlando’s 25,000-seat ground is magnificent. The optics and sound from Portland’s smaller venue always make for fantastic TV. Every venue is different; it’s all about context and relationships, and what works for Atlanta United might not work in Kansas City, where a re-branding has played out spectacularly.

It looks like this one in the Peach State is working brilliantly. It certainly did on a Sunday with a very big, memorable feel.

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