Atlanta United plays its first game at new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.

The field, built for the Atlanta Falcons, will have a curtain covering the upper deck and a capacity of 42,500 for soccer games — but the club is already planning to open the whole 71,000-seat stadium for a few games down the stretch this year, given the huge crowds the team has drawn all season.

It’s been a pretty good debut season for Atlanta. The club spent big money and prepared meticulously for its expansion season, and the result has been an exciting team that is favored to reach the playoffs in the cutthroat Eastern Conference this season. Atlanta feels like the future of MLS, with big spending and huge crowds. It’s worth wondering if other teams in MLS can keep up.

Money is flowing into soccer in America. Target quit sponsoring auto racing so that it could spend more on advertising to soccer fans. Adidas, which paid $25 million per year for the right to supply jerseys in 2010, just upped that to over $110 million per year. In response, the central MLS office is doling out more money to its clubs to spend on acquiring players.

The clubs at the forefront of MLS are making this count. Seattle, long the league’s attendance leader, has always spent and thought big, making what is theoretically a small-market team into one of the league’s elite clubs. From the beginning, Atlanta did the same — and the fans responded, dethroning Seattle as the league’s attendance leader.

Recent expansion clubs Orlando City and NYC FC have done the same, and when Los Angeles FC joins the league next season, it is all but certain to jump into that same group. Add in some older teams, such as Toronto and Chicago, that have escaped years of failure and loosened the purse strings, and there’s a distinct trend across the league — toward more spending, and away from careful, small-money team-building.

At the other end of the league, the penny-pinching teams are beginning to be left behind. MLS spends very little on player salaries, compared to other major sports, but even with the tiny payrolls, the biggest (Toronto) is more than four times as large as the payrolls of four other clubs in the league. A few teams, notably Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas, have tried to combat this by building up excellent youth academies, but advantages there will flatten out as other teams get their own youth systems up to speed.

MLS has always been unique in world soccer, with a salary cap and a centralized structure. As money flows in, though, the league will start heading the way of other world soccer leagues, where finances beat conservative team-building almost every time.

The teams, like Atlanta, with big money and big attendance, are certainly comfortable with the direction the league is going. The teams that are unwilling to match them look set to struggle.

Short takes

• It’s been quite a few years since people have been this down on the U.S. men’s national soccer team. An ugly home loss to Costa Rica and a desperate draw at Honduras have put the U.S. in the unenviable position of needing to win its final two games to qualify for the World Cup. The Americans should not have trouble beating Panama at home, or Trinidad and Tobago on the road — but then again, they shouldn’t be in this position to begin with.


• Alex Morgan won’t be spending another year in France this winter. The Orlando Pride striker announced that she was forgoing a chance to rejoin European powerhouse Lyon this winter, after helping the club win the Champions League, French league title and French cup last season.


• The North American Soccer League’s future is again uncertain, after U.S. Soccer declined to sanction it as a second-division league for 2018. Presumably, the NASL would have to drop to third-division status, while the USL stays as the second division — something that would trouble NASL owners, some of whom might fold their clubs or try to jump to the USL instead.


Premier League: Manchester United at Stoke City, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. “But can they do it on a rainy night in Stoke?” has become Premier League shorthand for the challenge that faces all elite English teams: performing in bad weather against highly motivated competition. The forecast, of course, is for rain.

La Liga: Espanyol at Barcelona, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, beIN. It’s the Barcelona rivalry. Naturally, this comes in the same week that the Spanish government and the Catalonia regional government are fighting about a potential independence referendum. Perhaps this is a preview of the future battles at the top of La Liga Catalonia?

Serie A: Milan at Lazio, 8 a.m. Sunday, beIN. Juventus has dominated Italy for years, but Milan spent big money in the summer to strengthen its squad and seems poised for a run — if not back to the top, then at least back to relevance. Winning in Rome vs. Lazio, though, is never easy.

MLS: FC Dallas at Atlanta, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1. Tune in just to see what Atlanta looks like in its new digs — but also take a look at the Atlanta squad, which is a sneaky favorite to make a run in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Dallas, meanwhile, is just fighting to stay in the Western Conference race.