Atlanta United FC defender Greg Garza was a member of the opening day roster for the team that will soon play in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Photo by Jacob Kupferman/CSM via AP Images

The U.S. Soccer Federation is intent on making the United States a major player in the FIFA World Cup men’s and women’s soccer tournaments every four years. And one of its key strategies for realizing that goal is to create more opportunities for players to grow in the game.

The USSF now recognizes three professional men’s outdoor soccer leagues: Major League Soccer (Division I), the U.S. Soccer League and the North America Soccer League (both Division II). The National Women’s Soccer League (Division I) is the sole USSF-recognized women’s professional league. Given that all four of these leagues continue to expand into new markets, U.S. soccer appears to be heading in the right direction.

At MLS in particular, signs of growth are clear. This season, the league is debuting its two newest teams, Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC. And two new stadiums are opening as well, with Orlando City SC unveiling its new downtown arena at the start of the season and Atlanta United planning to start play before the end of the season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home it will share with the NFL’s Falcons. Several other clubs have new venues in the works as well.

Meanwhile, 12 ownership groups have submitted applications for the next wave of expansion. MLS is scheduled to announce two expansion teams later this year, which would raise the number of MLS teams to 24. Two more teams are expected to be named after that at a date that has not yet been set.

“We view expansion as one of the strongest indicators as to where the sport of soccer is going in the U.S. and Canada, ultimately with Major League Soccer as the driving force of the sport in our region,” said Dan Courtemanche, MLS executive vice-president for communications, who has been with the league office since the beginning.

Here’s the Pitch

While new venues are under construction in Atlanta, Los Angeles and St. Paul, Minnesota, Orlando City SC started this season—its third year in MLS—in the new Orlando City Stadium. The $110 million soccer-specific venue in downtown Orlando seats 25,500. For its first two seasons, the team played in Camping World Stadium (formerly known as the Citrus Bowl).

When MLS Commissioner Don Garber presented an opportunity for OCSC to showcase its new home this year in front of a primetime and international television audience on ESPN, the club jumped at the chance. OCSC’s home opener, originally scheduled for the third week of the season, was moved up to March 5 to accommodate the league’s TV schedule.

International exposure is crucial to the Florida squad. “We have the desire to be a global team,” said Alex Leitão, OCSC’s chief executive officer. “The fact is that Orlando is the most visited city in the world. It’s a tourist destination. A lot of people are coming from other countries. We have to take advantage of this location.”

Moving up the date of the opener meant that a few minor details in the stadium’s construction were not yet complete, but fans and players didn’t seem to mind. Against New York City FC—the same club OCSC played in its first MLS match in 2015—the team got off to a rousing start with a 1-0 win in front of 25,527 purple-clad fans.

Leitão said the team accomplished its goal of creating a spirited home environment. “That was the plan and the objective from the beginning,” said Leitão. “When we started talking with Populous, the architectural firm, we told them, ‘Look, what we need is a very recreational building and, secondly, a building that’s tough for opponents to win (in).’”

At the north end of the stadium is standing-room-only space for about 4,000 fans, a setup patterned after the famed “Yellow Wall” at the home stadium of the German club Borussia Dortmund. “This is the most exciting place in the building, honestly,” said Leitão, a Brazilian who previously founded Octagon Brazil, a sports management and marketing agency, and also worked in marketing for AB InBev, the parent company of Anheuser-Busch.

Leitão reports to Phil Rawlins, who founded Orlando City SC in 2010 when he transferred the franchise from Austin, Texas, where it was a USL team called the Austin Aztex. After the franchise established itself in Orlando, Flavio Augusto da Silva, another Brazilian, stepped forward to become the majority owner.

In its initial seasons as a USL club, OCSC caught the attention of the MLS office in New York. “It’s important because then you can prove that you have a marketplace, that there are soccer-seasoned fans who care about the sport,” Leitão said. “That’s what we knew since the beginning.”

Once the team fulfilled the requirements to enter MLS as an expansion franchise, it made a smooth transition. The team opened to 62,510 fans at Camping World, the largest soccer crowd ever for the venue. “Of course, when we moved to MLS, that base grows,” said Leitão. “We have a lot of new fans and new people watching the games and being impacted by the sport.”

The seating capacity of Orlando City Stadium was determined by its downtown location. “Since the beginning, it was a mandate for us to do it downtown,” said Leitão. “Then we started looking to areas inside downtown that we were able to build a stadium in. That is the first limitation on how big the stadium could be—the size of the site. When we started planning the building, we saw that an 18,000- or 19,000-seat stadium would be a good fit.”

As it turned out, the site could accommodate a stadium with a capacity of more than 25,000, “which in my opinion is a perfect size,” Leitão said.

Team Introductions

Atlanta United FC opened its era at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium while its future home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, enters its final phase of construction. The new $1.6 billion stadium, which will have a retractable roof, will replace the Georgia Dome, although its opening was recently delayed from July 30 to later in the season. The stadium will eventually host Super Bowl LIII in 2019 and the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2020.

Meanwhile, the team is drawing large crowds. At its home debut in March at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta United drew more than 55,000 for a 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls.

“A lot of people said when the franchise was announced that it wouldn’t succeed because Atlanta is a fickle sports town,” said Darren Eales, Atlanta United team president. “What we’ve seen with us breaking all the records with Atlanta United and with the excitement around the Atlanta Falcons when they got to the Super Bowl is that it’s just nonsense.”

A week after its home opener, Atlanta United traveled to the Twin Cities to play the league’s other new team, Minnesota United FC. The Minnesota team is playing its inaugural season at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus until its new stadium in St. Paul is complete. Atlanta beat MNUFC, 6-1, in front of 35,043 fans, the largest soccer crowd in Minnesota since 1984 when the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies played the Minnesota Strikers before more than 52,000 fans. That opening match set a record for the coldest in league history, with the temperature dipping to 19 degrees. (The previous record was 20 degrees at the 2013 MLS Cup match in Kansas City.)

Minnesota United FC’s stadium in St. Paul is expected to be ready during the 2019 season. It will have a canopy designed to shield the fans from rain or snow and also to boost the noise level. But it’ll be up to the fans to dress for the cold. For Atlanta United’s games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, seating capacity will be limited to 40,000, concentrated in the mezzanine and lower bowl sections. But with suites, attendance figures may approach closer to 43,000. For Falcons games, the seating will be 71,000. Both teams will play on FieldTurf, making Atlanta United one of five MLS teams playing on artificial surfaces.

“When I took the job, originally we were saying that soccer capacity at Mercedes-Benz was going to be 29,000, which is the lower bowl,” said Eales, a native of England who earned an economics degree while playing on a soccer scholarship at Brown University. “But obviously we’ve sold more than that already. It’s a nice problem.”

Eales took the job as president of Atlanta United in 2014. He previously worked as an executive with the English Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur and was involved in plans for that club’s new stadium in London, which was designed to accommodate NFL games as well as soccer. “We were actually doing the reverse, which was building and designing a new (soccer) stadium with the ability to host NFL games,” he said. “So I’ve been through the process the other way around.”

He added, “Then when I came to join Atlanta, (Falcons and Atlanta United owner) Arthur Blank and the team had already done a great job in designing the stadium that had the ability to be used for both American football as well as soccer.”

A quick-conversion plan is in place for instances when Atlanta United has a Saturday night match before a Sunday Falcons game. The plan involves not just the field but also sponsored indoor signage and other branding. “Everything is changed on the flip of a switch. That’s a really good thing about it,” said Eales. Each sport will have separate locker room facilities for home and visitors.

Atlanta United is looking to build on the buzz from its season opener at Dodd Stadium, where virtually everyone was decked out in the team colors of black, red and gold. “Honestly I thought it would be a lot longer to get that soccer atmosphere,” Eales said. “Right from day one, they were all standing throughout the whole game, cheering, chanting. It was great.”

Growth of the Sport

Miami FC has started its matches in the NASL at the upgraded and newly named Riccardo Silva Stadium, with plans to enter MLS play. It’s one of eight teams playing this NASL season, which features a 16-game spring season and a 16-game fall season, a schedule it has followed every year since 2013. The champion of each season will host a semifinal game on November 4, leading into a championship final a week later.

“The idea (of the split season) was to create more pressure on the teams,” said Interim Commissioner Rishi Sehgal. “There’s a trophy on the line almost right off the bat at the start of the season.” After an eventful fall season when Tampa Bay and Ottawa switched from the NASL to the USL, Sehgal, the league’s director of business development and legal affairs, took over in January for Bill Peterson, who had been NASL commissioner since 2012.

Sehgal said the split season also allows teams to participate in the international transfer market, giving them an opportunity to tweak their rosters. “We’ve had incredibly exciting finishes to each of the spring and fall seasons in the three years that it’s been employed,” said Sehgal. “We expect to see much of the same this year.”

Though the eight-team NASL is four teams short of the standards laid out by U.S. Soccer to meet Division II status, the governing body has allowed the NASL to retain its status this year on a provisional basis. “For us, it was hugely important to be Division II,” said Sehgal. “Our clubs are not in Division III markets. We’re in major markets. For right now, we’re just focused on growing the league.”

The San Francisco Deltas are one of those teams located in a major market, the only new market for the NASL this season. Seats removed from Candlestick Park have been installed at historic Kezar Stadium, where the Deltas play their home games. San Francisco, of course, is not far from the San Jose market, home of the MLS Earthquakes. “Soccer is a tribal sport and you really want to have a team that represents who you are in your community,” said Sehgal. “We’re focused on growing the community where we think that soccer hasn’t fully embraced them yet. That’s why we’re comfortable with going into San Francisco.”

NASL matches will stream weekly on ESPN3 if they’re not being shown on any other national network platform. The USL will also stream its game of the week on ESPN3. Both leagues will crown a champion in November, and the USL championship match is slated to be shown on ESPNU.

This summer, the USL will also announce details of the Division III men’s professional league it’s creating for 2019. Development has been underway over the past 18 months.

On the women’s side, the rest of the world is trying to stay competitive with the United States for supremacy in World Cup competition. But the U.S. will retain a big advantage as the National Women’s Soccer League embarks on its fifth season this spring. The league has 10 teams, including the newly relocated 2016 champions, the Western New York Flash, who have become the North Carolina Courage, playing in Cary.

The league, which has the backing of both the USSF and the Canadian Soccer Association, also recently announced a groundbreaking new partnership with A+E Networks, which will become an investor with an equity stake in the league. As part of the deal, the Lifetime channel will become an official sponsor and broadcast partner of the league for three years starting this season. The deal also includes a new venture, NWSL Media, which will serve as the media and commercial arm of the league.

“This partnership is not only tremendously significant in the continued growth of the NWSL, but representative of how far the league has come in four years and where it can go in the future,” U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said when the deal was announced in February. “A+E and its resources are a fantastic fit for women’s professional soccer and will have a major impact on continuing to raise the profile of what we feel is already the best and most competitive league in the world.”

Back for Seconds

Looking beyond this season, a second MLS team is preparing to make a go of it in Los Angeles. Chivas USA was dissolved by MLS in 2014 after entering the league in 2004 as a subsidiary of the Mexican club C.D. Guadalajara. It shared a home with the Los Angeles Galaxy at StubHub Center (formerly known as Home Depot Center) in Carson, California. After Chivas USA was dissolved, MLS announced that a new Los Angeles franchise with new investors would start play in 2018.

The Los Angeles Football Club, a new rival to the five-time MLS champion Galaxy, will make its MLS debut in a new $350 million, 22,000-seat stadium on the site where the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena once stood in Exposition Park near downtown. “It really starts with the ownership group, the vision they have, the stadium that they’re building and the brand that they’ve created and are growing in that region,” said Courtemanche. “We think that they’re going to be wildly successful and will only elevate the popularity of the Galaxy, much like what we’ve seen in the New York area.”

New York City FC, in its third MLS season, has already established a strong rivalry with the New York Red Bulls, based in Harrison, New Jersey. Until a new stadium is completed in The Bronx, NYCFC will continue to play its home games in Yankee Stadium, where the club averaged almost 30,000 fans a game during its inaugural season. The NASL also has a presence in the market with the New York Cosmos, who play their home games at MCU Park in Coney Island. The USL has a team there, too, the New York Red Bulls II, who play their home games at MSU Soccer Park in Montclair, New Jersey.

Courtemanche believes the rivalry between NYCFC and the Red Bulls has sparked an increase in season-ticket sales on the New Jersey side. “That rivalry really ignited additional incremental interest in the Red Bulls, which is not something that was necessarily planned but organically happened,” said Courtemanche.

Next Stage 

Even with the Galaxy already in Los Angeles and the Red Bulls in the New York/New Jersey market, MLS didn’t hesitate to add expansion teams in those markets. And that raises a question: How much will territorial concerns enter into the equation for future expansion teams?

The 12 cities that have made the short list for expansion are Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa/St. Petersburg. The St. Louis ownership group, however, was dealt a severe blow in early April by the city’s voters, who rejected public funding for the construction of a soccer stadium.

Courtemanche said a number of factors will be under consideration but that the league won’t necessarily shy away from adding a team in an area that has another nearby. “We believe that there is more than enough room and demand for two Major League Soccer teams in Los Angeles and certainly potentially another one down the road in San Diego,” he said. “There are millions of soccer fans throughout Southern California. That’s definitely not a concern.”

In addressing the media after MLS announced the potential expansion cities in January, President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott noted that the sheer number of interested cities in itself may be an indication of where the league is headed. When play first began in 1996, there were 10 teams in MLS. Now 12 are interested in being the next city where the league expands.

“To be able to see, on a single day, 12 markets submit applications—with the strength of ownership groups and the quality of stadium plans we saw—is really something that’s quite amazing,” Abbott said. “It’s a tremendously strong statement about the growth of the sport and the league.”