Before Atlanta was awarded an MLS franchise in 2014, the city was not part of the league’s business plans. The Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny folded after the 2001 season, and doubts persisted about the level of interest in soccer in the southeastern region of the United States.
“It wasn’t something I thought I would do,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said this week.
That sentiment was echoed when Atlanta Falcons billionaire Arthur Badon, whom Garber has known for 16 years in the NFL, expressed interest in bringing the team to Georgia.
“(Blank) and I met in the early 2000s,” Garber said on Saturday. “MLS started expanding again in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and Arthur said, ‘Hey, I’m going to build this new stadium. I promise it’s going to be one of the greatest stadiums in our country, if not the world. It’s great.’ It will be a soccer city and the stadium will be full. Let’s bring MLS.’ ‘I don’t see it, Arthur,’ I said.
Blank insisted. And on Saturday, his persistence led to another milestone in a turbulent era for football in the region. Thanks in part to a donation from the bank, U.S. Soccer will now build the federation’s first national training center in Atlanta, which it will fully control. Since 1991, the Federation has moved its headquarters there from Chicago.
Garber told reporters that the new National Training Center is “one of the most important projects in the history of American football.”
“Atlanta is an exploding city,” Garber said. “It has a very passionate football team and sports community. This will have an impact on our sport for generations to come.
On Saturday, USSF President Cindy Pallow Cohn gave an opening speech about the training center project to thousands of fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the same room Atlanta celebrated last June as the host city for the 2026 World Cup. Atlanta United entered the stadium for their match against Inter Miami. The 70,000-plus crowd that attended the game was a testament to the growth of soccer in Atlanta (although star attraction Lionel Messi was absent that day).
“There was a time when I thought it was all going to go away and it’s not going to happen,” Palou Cone said on Saturday. History was definitely not on her side. The U.S. men’s and women’s youth and senior national teams have never had their own national training center, instead moving around various facilities across the country.
A world power in many ways, the USSF’s lack of investment in training facilities has indirectly emphasized soccer’s place in the American sports landscape. Mexico, the perennial rival of the United States Men’s National Team, has a 129,167-square-foot High Performance Center in Mexico City. In the year It was built in 1997 and features three full pitches, a hybrid (natural grass/turf) pitch, a beach soccer pitch and modern amenities such as massage and games rooms, renovated coaches’ suites and a player’s dormitory.
Confederations around the world have national training centers with varying financial investment. Even a country like Bolivia, which has only played in one Men’s World Cup (1994), recently has a facility dedicated to their national team. World champions Argentina have training grounds in Buenos Aires and Mallorca, Spain, and will soon build two more in the Miami area.
What took the United States so long to follow suit? The size of the United States and the country’s varying climates have contributed, as has the practice of not playing in a specific indoor stadium for either the United States men’s or women’s senior national team, which is common in other regions.
Atlanta United CEO Garth Lagerwey said his participation in the project was largely motivated by the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic and the US men’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia were two of the main reasons the federation created it. He couldn’t finish the project early. He cited Sporting Kansas City’s training center and Los Angeles as two locations frequently used by the national team — the Kansas City facility is where most of the USSF’s coaching and referee training programs take place, while LA has been the home of the USMNT’s traditional January camp. .
“A lot of economics changes in that context,” Lagerwey said. “To be honest, (former USMNT manager and technical director) Jurgen Klinsmann was the first person to modernize the national team’s formation. Then obviously we built it from there. I think we’ve come a fair distance in ten years. We’re a little behind in terms of picking this stuff up, but at the same time we’re doing it right.
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Parlow Cone credited AMB Sports and Entertainment (AMBSE) vice-chairman Steve Cannon for “reviving this project” – a significant nod to the project’s most important benefactor. AMBSE is a multi-billion dollar sports empire built by Blank, who is the co-founder of Home Depot. AMBSE includes the Falcons, Atlanta United, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the entire PGA Superstore.
Bado, 80, contributed $50 million to the federation for the construction of the first-of-its-kind project. “It’s a great thing for a beautiful sport,” he said, adding that Atlanta is home to 27 US national teams and the home of the federation’s extended programs.
Blank said talks were held with USSF over six months about the project’s concept, and the investment came because he saw an opportunity to build a world-class facility “that the soccer world would be proud of.”
“To be honest, the amount of money wasn’t the most important part,” Blank said. “Writing a check is the easiest thing, really. I’m glad I got the chance to do it.
Blank is the main reason why Atlanta’s sports scene is so incredibly popular with football. The city is home to the Atlanta Braves, who won the World Series two years ago. The Falcons are a huge NFL brand on the rise. The NBA’s Atlanta Hawks are a young and exciting team that attracts great people. The city hosted the NFL’s Super Bowl in 2019 and was set to host the NCAA Final Four in 2020 before it was canceled due to the pandemic.
Atlanta is one of the most famous places in college football. Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosts the Southeastern Conference championship game each season, as well as college football’s first national championship game in an expanded 12-team playoff format.
However, all that competition did not limit the growth of the sport in the city or the surrounding area.
There is a history of men’s professional soccer in Atlanta that did not begin with Atlanta United; The Atlanta Chiefs represented the city in 14 years since 1967. However, the area’s modern gaming history seems more promising and has a lasting impact.
Atlanta United joined the league in the year Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Atlanta United’s training facility in suburban Marietta are state-of-the-art structures that have helped lay the foundation for the city’s continued international sporting presence.
Boys and girls youth soccer is also big business in Georgia. Soccer may not be Georgia’s top sport, but it now has a strong foothold at the grassroots and professional and international levels.
“I really feel like this is a special opportunity for Atlanta,” Blank said Saturday. “When I went to Atlanta, there were less than a million people. Now there are over 8 million and football has become a meaningful part of the fabric of this city. It brings together so many elements and values that we think are so important, not only on the field but also off the field.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said moving the federation’s headquarters from Chicago to Atlanta would make the southern city “the soccer capital of this nation.”
“This investment in Atlanta, rich in cultural diversity, has the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta is a football city, a sports city, and is a big part of the land that is open to all kinds of opportunities. Youth and for the game of football.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)