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Could the NWSL expand to Atlanta? Notes from a chat with Amanda Duffy

Inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to MLS' Atlanta United, which has shown soccer can succeed in Atlanta. Could the National Women's Soccer League one day return to the city? (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

CARY, N.C. — Entering its seventh season, the National Women’s Soccer League has nine teams.

Expanding the league has been rumored and discussed. FC Barcelona has expressed interest in partnering with the NWSL to field a team, and so has Major League Soccer’s LAFC.

The league has many problems to resolve – such as staffing issues and finding a TV partner – before considering adding more teams, but now might be a good time to survey which markets are best for expansion sides.

Duffy told Pro Soccer USA in January the league was “planning and preparing for expansion to be in 2020,” and the NWSL has an opportunity to capture new fans from the buzz of this summer’s World Cup in France.

Atlanta, Ga., is a city that has experienced a tremendous amount of success during its recent foray into professional soccer with its three-year-old MLS club, Atlanta United FC. The club won the MLS Cup last season and consistently packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium, averaging 53,002 fans per home match. The club is heavily covered by local and national media outlets, the biggest sports radio station in the city — 92.9 The Game — devotes weekly segments to the team and celebrities regularly attend games. In many ways, Atlanta has become a soccer city.

Could the NWSL find success there, too?

In a recent interview with reporters at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., Pro Soccer USA posed the possibility of an Atlanta expansion team to NWSL president Amanda Duffy.

“It’s certainly a market that has proven to support the sport. And through that, we recognize an opportunity that could be a good opportunity for NWSL expansion in that market, but a lot of things factor into expansion conversations,” Duffy said. “We certainly don’t have a question of ownership capabilities or facilities and resources there, but there is a timing and there are priorities that every organization have and so, this is a commitment too, for any expansion team that’s looking at NWSL. So, the timing has to be right for anyone that is considering it.”

If the NWSL did come to Atlanta, it wouldn’t be the first time the city fielded a women’s team. Both of the league’s predecessors – Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) and Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) – fielded teams in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Beat of WUSA was active from 2001 through 2003 and twice made it to the championship game. The team featured U.S. women’s national team stars Briana Scurry and Cindy Parlow, and China’s Sun Wen. They played games on the campuses of Georgia Tech and Morris Brown College. When the league folded after three seasons in 2003, so did the Beat.

But a new version of the Beat resurfaced with the launch of WPS. The new Beat began play in 2010 and featured popular USWNT players Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd. The Beat lasted just two seasons, closing up shop when WPS folded in 2012.

One thing the Beat helped accomplish was the building of a soccer stadium near the campus of Kennesaw State University. A public-private partnership between the club and the university paved the way for the 10,500-seat Fifth Third Bank Stadium in 2010.

While it’s a soccer-specific stadium – with seats close to the playing surface, which is made of hybrid grass – it has been home to several teams since the Beat folded. Kennesaw State’s football, women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse teams play there, as do the Atlanta Blaze of Major League Lacrosse. This season, Atlanta United’s USL Championship affiliate, ATL UTD 2, began playing its home matches there, too. Near Fifth Third Bank Stadium are also several grass and turf practice pitches.

If the NWSL does decide to expand to Atlanta, finding a facility to house the team should be the least of its worries.

Notes

Here are some other topics Duffy touched on during her Saturday interview with reporters at WakeMed Soccer Park.

On when determining the location of the NWSL final will be made:

“Soon. There are ongoing discussions with the location of the championship and I anticipate that information will be shared soon. At this point, the conversation is surrounding a predetermined site. It’s an ongoing conversation right now that has some variables to it that we’re actively working through.”

On the league’s relationship and future with the International Champions Cup:

“We’ll see. We were really thrilled to have North Carolina participate in the tournament last year. We think the appropriate evolution of that tournament with NWSL involved is to have that tournament here hosted by an NWSL team. That’ll allow our NWSL supporters to be more engaged with the tournament and have North Carolina more involved with the execution of the tournament, and feel like there are more commercial opportunities for an NWSL team that’s involved as well.

“Happy for the Courage. They obviously won the tournament last year. And there’s some highly competitive teams that are part of the tournament. So, happy for them and that opportunity and that the fans will have that opportunity to support women’s soccer.”

On exposure league gets from 2019 World Cup:

“We saw that in 2015. The women’s World Cup provides this sport the biggest and best stage for women’s soccer. For us to have the representation from a player’s standpoint, who are representing NWSL clubs while playing for their respective national associations, and to have the visibility from a fan support standpoint, from a broadcast and viewership standpoint, I feel like we’ll have more eyes on the game and more eyes and awareness and engagement on NWSL through our association with the players in the women’s World Cup.

“We saw it in 2015. We anticipate it in 2019 as a league. For all of our clubs, I think we’re all stronger and in a better position to capture new fans that are showing interest in this league and retaining them as longer-term returning fans to support these players.”

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