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MLS expansion update: Atlanta closes in, Minneapolis a 'frontrunner,' realignment, more

Don Garber, Arthur Blank MLS commissioner Don Garber, left, and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank talk during the Nigeria-Mexico friendly in Atlanta last month. (Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI)

The MLS of the early 2020s, the robust 24-team circuit that's supposed to be one of the best leagues on the planet, came into slightly sharper focus on Tuesday as Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank confirmed that an expansion agreement is in "the very final stages."

Blank, the Home Depot co-founder, has been knocking on MLS' door for around eight years. His unnamed team likely will take the field inside a new retractable-roof stadium in 2017. Speaking to WCNN radio, Blank claimed MLS is a "tremendous fit" for the city and that there's "an event planned for hopefully the middle of April in downtown Atlanta that'll be very unique and special ... with all the appropriate celebrities here."

The target date, as reported this weekend by Philly.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and confirmed by SI.com, is April 16. MLS expects to have a deal signed by then that will increase the number of teams to 22, not including the franchise that David Beckham will be awarded if and when he finalizes a stadium deal in Miami. Blank is expected to pay an expansion fee somewhere in between the $70 million charged to Orlando City and the $100 million spent by Manchester City and the New York Yankees on New York City FC. Both Orlando and NYCFC will begin play next year.

Blank told WCNN that the MLS board of governors already has approved the use of the $1 billion facility planned for a site just south of the Georgia Dome. The new stadium will be built with soccer in mind, with a wide field (albeit artificial turf) and a draping system that will create a second, temporary roof over the lower deck.

"They were very impressed with that," Blank said.

The Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution and Vancouver Whitecaps also share stadiums with pro football teams. Toronto FC eventually may as well.

While the league and Blank hammer out the final details, the MLS technical committee met on Monday to discuss future alignment and competition formats. There will be 21 teams next year and at least 22 by 2017. Miami makes 23 and a 24th should be on board by 2020. Minneapolis is considered the frontrunner for that final spot, a league source said this week.

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The technical committee, which makes recommendations aimed at the on-field product, doesn't have the final say. But it has gotten the ball rolling regarding the league's look next year. Orlando and NYCFC would boost the Eastern Conference to 12 teams. The West currently contains only nine.

To address the imbalance, MLS could move only the Houston Dynamo back to the West, where it played from 2006 through 2010. That would leave 11 clubs in the East and 10 in the West. Or, it could shift both Houston and Sporting Kansas City, giving the West a temporary majority. There are several options on the table, and a source said that the league is sensitive to the criticism that has resulted from repeated changes in alignment and playoff format. It's looking for a permanent solution.

There will be conferences. That much is certain. Whether those conferences are then split into divisions like the other major U.S. leagues, whether a third conference is added or whether the league simply evolves into a circuit with two, 12-team conferences remains undecided.

Future TV partners will have a say, and both the league and potential broadcast partners believe that stoking rivalries is important. But so are groupings large enough to include a variety of prevailing weather conditions, travel demands and field surfaces on a given club's schedule. In other words, smaller divisions might force some teams to play far more frequently at altitude or on artificial surfaces than others. There's currently sentiment on the technical committee for two 12-team conferences, according to a source, but two additional committees and the board of governors may have other ideas. The board will make the final decision.

In 2020, MLS could look like this:

EASTERN: Atlanta, Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, D.C. United, Miami, Montreal Impact, New England Revolution, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC.

WESTERN: Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, L.A. Galaxy, Los Angeles (formerly Chivas USA), Minneapolis (or San Antonio, Sacramento, etc.), Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver Whitecaps.

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The league hopes to have a 2015 format established by this August's All-Star Game in Portland.

By then, Atlanta almost surely will be a done deal. There will be skeptics, either because of the empty seats at Braves playoff games and the departure of the Thrashers or because of a more deep-seated doubt that the southeast will support pro soccer. But Blank didn't own those teams and if Sporting has proven anything, it's that a well-run club with the right stadium can succeed just about anywhere. Nobody was calling K.C. a soccer town five years ago. Now it calls itself the "Soccer Capital of America."

MLS believes that Blank and his downtown arena fit the bill. The league has vetted its new partner carefully -- a must in the post-Jorge Vergara era -- and has determined that he's in it for the right reasons. Blank, 71, is a soccer dad who claimed Tuesday that the sport is "huge in the state of Georgia" and that "an urban, downtown soccer stadium is going to be a tremendous hit in Atlanta." It will sit at the heart of the country's ninth most populous metro area, which has a younger and "much more diverse population" likely to embrace the world's game.

MLS also has a long-standing relationship with Falcons executive VP and chief marketing and revenue officer Jim Smith, who was the GM of the Columbus Crew in 2000-2004. He's been with the Falcons since then and has played a key role in helping Blank arrange his expansion bid.

Blank on Tuesday also addressed the branding of his future MLS franchise.

"Like everything else, we'll listen to the fans. We'll do some polling and get some good input," he said. A WCNN host mentioned that the name Atlanta Phoenix has been gaining traction on Twitter (the mythical bird is the centerpiece of the city flag) and Blank replied, "I've heard that too."

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