Darren Eales is no stranger to high-stakes stadium projects. When he was executive director of Tottenham Hotspur, an English Premier League team in London, he played a part in the early stages of a new soccer and entertainment venue that would host the occasional American football game as the NFL sought to make inroads across the pond.
Now, the British-born president of Atlanta United is living the opposite side of that equation, leading a brand new soccer team into what some see only as a nest for the Atlanta Falcons, the city’s longtime NFL franchise.
But it’s clear from the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s design that soccer wasn’t an afterthought, a fact that Mr. Eales attributed to the vision and commitment of both teams’ owner, Arthur Blank, who wanted the Major League Soccer expansion team and its fans to feel welcome.
“Our soccer supporters don’t like to feel like they’re guests in someone else’s stadium,” Steve Cannon, CEO of Falcons parent company AMB Entertainment said during a media tour Tuesday, less than two weeks ahead of the stadium’s official Aug. 26 opening.
Of course there are big things that help achieve this: Atlanta United has its own locker rooms and isn’t relegated to the visiting football team’s digs. Corner seats deployed behind the end zones for Falcons games can be retracted to reveal pitch with the maximum FIFA-sanctioned width of 75 yards. That serves two purposes: aiding Atlanta’s case in the U.S.’s 2026 World Cup bid, and allowing Atlanta United’s young, speedy team to tire out their opponents.
Then, of course, there’s the oval roof, which will in open when a complex array of steel trusses move the building’s eight white, nearly 500-ton “petals” in a synchronized fashion.
That will turn an already airy indoor stadium into an outdoor venue in just 11 minutes. (Automating this process is taking longer than expected, according to officials, who have announced that at least the first few games for both teams in the fall will have to be played with the roof closed.)
Mr. Eales said some of the more than 45,000 fans (on average) per match who have watched the team at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium so far this year have wondered whether the new stadium will match what some have described as an electric outdoor atmosphere.
Mr. Eales isn’t worried: The new stadium will have a 5,000-seat supporter section for the team’s rowdiest fans. It also includes 1,264 beer taps — compared with just 30 in the Georgia Dome. Georgia Tech’s stadium also made it challenging.
“A problem we had at Bobby Dodd was getting a beer before the game or at halftime. No problem here,” Mr. Eales said.
He also noted that the stadium’s huge, open bowl will help “refract” the sound, and that when in “United mode”, branded curtains will come down to close off the upper deck, giving it a more intimate feel of a 44,000-seat stadium than the Falcons normal 71,000. And never will the soccer pitch be painted with American football lines, a frequent pain point for soccer teams in shared stadiums.
But Mr. Eales especially appreciates the small touches that accommodate international traditions in what in size and style feels like a decidedly American venue.
Located on its own half of the stadium, Atlanta United’s locker room is finished more like an upscale hotel than a gym. But even while showing off sleek marble benches, dark wood cabinetry and jersey spotlights, Mr. Eales spoke with greater pride in the facility’s fidelity to international soccer traditions.
The first designs called for a hydrotherapy area big enough to host a couple dozen Falcons offensive linemen. Mr. Eales asked Mr. Blank to cut down on that space because he needed it for something else: a multipurpose room.
Before matches, players will gather there for a pregame meal. Afterward, they’ll use it to reunited with their families, in line with practices in Europe and South America.
Coach Tata Martino’s own lounge also needed a bit of reconfiguration. Unlike the Falcons’ massive coaches’ lounge, his has a small door to the outside corridor. That’s to be used by the visiting coach, who according to European soccer tradition will be invited over to share a beer with his counterpart after their match. Initial designs would have required the visiting coach to walk through the Atlanta United locker room.
“We just felt that if there’d been some antagonistic moment during the game, that might not work, so we’ve actually built a side door in so the head coach can sneak in, have a drink, they can share best practices and then he can disappear without causing any offense,” Mr. Eales said.
Seemingly most important to Mr. Eales showed off next: the halfway line where teams will pour out of tunnels at the beginning of the match.
“That’s going to be a real feature moment for us.”
The Falcons open their preseason Aug. 26 against the Arizona Cardinals. Atlanta United will face FC Dallas on Sept. 10 in a rescheduled regular season game.
In September, Mercedes-Benz Stadium will host three Falcons games and three Atlanta United matches, plus two Chick-fil-A kickoff college football games.