Atlanta United will play its home games in its inaugural 2017 season at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium until its home of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is scheduled to open in June.
The original plan was for the Major League Soccer expansion franchise to play all road games for the first three months of the season. The change was announced on Wednesday by Steve Cannon, CEO of the AMB Group, the parent company that owns Atlanta United, and team president Darren Eales.
“This gives us a chance to be as competitive as we can be from the start,” Eales said.
Eales and Cannon said there were more factors that led to the decision, including the number of season-ticket sales, the difficulty in opening the season with as many as 12 road games, and making as comfortable as possible the players who are relocating to a new team and city.
“We want Atlanta United to start with a winning culture from day one,” Cannon said.
Under the original plan, after opening with three months of road games, Atlanta United hoped to play the minimum of 17 home games in the second half of the regular season, which this season ran from March until October. The 2017 schedule likely won’t be released until January, so the date of the team’s first home game at Bobby Dodd isn’t yet known.
The contract between Atlanta United and Georgia Tech will end in late July, which Eales said is a contingency. The contract was signed within the past 10 days. The goal is to play games in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in June. A copy of the contract between AMB Group, or Atlanta United, has been requested from Georgia Tech.
Officials from Major League Soccer approved the use of Bobby Dodd, which features natural grass with strips of artificial turf running along the edges of the sidelines. The width of the grass and turf is 72.3 yards. The length of the field is 129 yards. FIFA’s prefers fields of minimums of 70 yards wide and 110 yards long. Eales said the club will work with Georgia Tech to replace the strips of artificial turf with natural grass. The stadium seats 55,000 for football.
Eales said that Atlanta United will request from MLS a balanced schedule with the same number of home games at Bobby Dodd that the team would have had at Mercedes-Benz Stadium if it were open.
Cannon noted that Atlanta United will now have two openers: one at Bobby Dodd and one at Mercedes-Benz. Also, Atlanta United will play its first home games in the oldest stadium – Bobby Dodd has been in use since 1913 – and will play its last home game in the newest stadium. The steel components of the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium are scheduled to be finished on Oct. 14. Once the roof is complete, the cranes will be broken down and removed and the completion of the lower bowl will accelerate.
Atlanta United has already sold more than 22,000 season tickets. The location is also convenient because Bobby Dodd is only a few miles from Mercedes-Benz Stadium and has access to MARTA.
“Opening at Bobby Dodd Stadium will be beneficial for our players on many levels,” technical director Carlos Bocanegra said in a statement from the team. “It’s challenging physically and mentally to play consecutive games on the road. Starting the beginning of the season at home will give our players the opportunity to get acclimated to Atlanta and settle into a consistent training regimen, which is especially important as an expansion team.”
According to the team, newly hired manager Gerardo Martino was briefed on the stadium situation during contract negotiations.
“It’s very exciting to know we’ll be playing in front of our home fans much sooner than expected,” he said in a statement issued from the team. “From a competitive standpoint, having a more balanced schedule will give us the best chance at success in our inaugural season.”
There are numerous examples in MLS history of teams either having to play a significant number of games on the road while awaiting completion of their stadium, or playing in a temporary home for the same reason.