Soccer

Atlanta debuts in MLS at stadium known for college football

A worker paints the field at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, March 2, 2017, before Atlanta United's first soccer game Sunday. The team will play its first eight home games at Georgia Tech's football stadium before moving to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in late July. (AP Photo/Paul Newberry)

A worker paints the field at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, March 2, 2017, before Atlanta United's first soccer game Sunday. The team will play its first eight home games at Georgia Tech's football stadium before moving to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in late July. (AP Photo/Paul Newberry)  (The Associated Press)

Goals sit at each end of Bobby Dodd Stadium — only these come with nets, not uprights. A worker unwinds a tape measure in what is normally the end zone, measuring off the last bits of the larger field that need to be painted for Atlanta United's very first game.

The oldest stadium in major college football is getting a makeover.

It's time to welcome a new sport, if only for a few months.

Georgia Tech's campus stadium will serve as the first home of Atlanta United, one of two expansion teams making its debut in Major League Soccer this season .

A sellout crowd of 55,000 is expected for Sunday's opener against the New York Red Bulls.

"We're unbelievably excited and honored that Georgia Tech could be part of this historical event," said assistant athletic director Elizabeth Lancaster, who worked with United to arrange its temporary home. "To be part of an inaugural game for a brand new team in Atlanta is incredible."

Bobby Dodd Stadium, which opened in 1913, will host eight United games. Then, on July 30, the team will move into its permanent home, $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a retractable-roof facility under construction less than two miles away.

While the players certainly look forward to settling into their ritzy new stadium, they're relishing the chance to play half the season on the grass of Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium will have an artificial surface.

"I'm used to playing on natural grass and my preference is natural grass," United defender Leandro González Pirez, a native of Argentina, said through an interpreter. "From what I've heard, the new stadium's turf is supposed to be very similar to natural grass. Hopefully it is like that. The players will just have to get used to it."

Not right away, though.

After it became clear that Mercedes-Benz Stadium wouldn't be ready for the start of the season, United considered playing solely on the road before reaching a deal with Georgia Tech to rent out Bobby Dodd Stadium.

While a bit narrow for soccer — along one sideline, there's only 2 yards between the pitch and the brick wall of the stands — it was approved by MLS after grass was installed over the entire surface of the field.

For football, Georgia Tech plays on grass but the sidelines are covered with artificial turf.

No other major renovations were required, but United will lose some 10,000 seats after the first home game. Georgia Tech had already scheduled maintenance of the upper deck at the north end of the stadium, which means that section will be closed off for United's remaining contests at Bobby Dodd.

Still, the older stadium provides an intimate atmosphere that should give United a solid home-field advantage.

The team hopes to make the playoffs in its inaugural season.

"The seats are close," Lancaster said. "We think that's going to help them tremendously, to have the noise, to have the crowd behind them."

United will play two of its first three games at Bobby Dodd Stadium before going on the road for most of April while Georgia Tech conducts spring football practice. After that is completed, the field will be re-sodded before the soccer team returns for its next home game.

Georgia Tech, which has struggled to garner attention and support in the crowded Atlanta sports market, believes the city's newest professional team will help boost the school's profile.

"It's a great way for us to get the Georgia Tech name out there," Lancaster said. "And then being able to bring folks on campus who may not have been here before, that are coming for the games, we are really excited to be able to show off our campus and our facilities."

While Bobby Dodd Stadium is known mainly for football, it does have some soccer history.

In 1973, the short-lived Atlanta Apollos of the North American Soccer League played in what was then known as Grant Field. They averaged just 3,300 fans per game and folded at the end of the season.

In 2001, Bobby Dodd Stadium was home to the Atlanta Beat of the Women's United Soccer Association for their inaugural season. They moved to a much-smaller stadium at nearby Morris Brown College the following year and went out of business along with the rest of the league after just three seasons.

United, which has sold more than 30,000 season tickets, seems poised for a much more successful run as Atlanta's latest soccer entry.

Even if they do have to start out at a home away from home.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .