Arthur Blank’s donation may help fulfill several soccer dreams

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

MLS Commissioner Don Garber flew to Atlanta to meet with Arthur Blank in April 2021 at Atlanta United’s training ground in Marietta.

Garber wanted to convince Blank, a billionaire and philanthropist who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charities and businesses in Atlanta and around the country, that he could do something that really may still be more fantasy than reality: help the U.S. win the men’s World Cup by helping the United States Soccer Federation build its first National Training Center. It’s a topic they had discussed before. This time, they discussed the goal of creating a complex that will be the best of any national team in the world. It would be a complex that will help each of the USSF’s 27 teams become the best they can be.

“Arthur has made such a commitment to the sport in our country, such a commitment to our league, was the first call like and he immediately got it,” Garber said. “He loves this city and has such a philanthropic point of view as to what he can do to support opportunities.”

On Friday, USSF announced that, with help from $50 million from Blank, it will build that center.

“I think it seemed incredible to me that virtually every other major country in the world had national training headquarters, but we had no national training grounds,” he said. “I mean, it’s almost like, ‘you have to be kidding me.’ I think the opportunity to bring that to Atlanta, and knowing the way Atlanta would be supportive, our fan base and our community and every aspect of what Atlanta means, it’d be a great home for U.S. Soccer Federation.”

Blank acknowledged he didn’t fully understand what having a National Training Center would. So he began talking more with USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone, who came up with the idea two years ago of having one for the USSF, and CEO JT Batson, a native of Augusta. Blank wanted to make sure that if he committed, it would be to create something world-class.

He liked what he heard. He doubled-down on his support Saturday.

“You think of ways that we can be there for you, and we’ll be there,” he said.

Parlow Cone, who once played for the Atlanta Beat, said there were two important factors she considered when honing the idea. One was from her being an elite player and what it would mean for national-teams players to have one place to train, to practice, to rehab, to watch film, all the things related to performance.

“I know what a national training center can do for the elite player in this country and take those programs to the next level,” she said.

She also wanted to improve soccer at a grassroots level around the country with training for coaches, referees, youth tournaments and clinics.

“It’s going to benefit not only Georgia, the greater Atlanta area, but it’s going to impact the entire country,” she said. “And what we’re able to do is to put more money and reinvest back into the grassroots level. And so especially like reaching out to underserved communities.

“It was kind of twofold. And I just knew that building a national training center would help us do all the things that we wanted to do both at the elite level and at the grassroots level.”

Soccer in the U.S. can be considered fractured. There are different professional leagues that operate independently. There are thousands of youth leagues around the nation.

Atlanta United Vice President Carlos Bocanegra, a former captain of the U.S. men’s national team, said having one site will create many learning opportunities for players and coaches that will benefit everyone.

Garber, who sits on the board of USSF, said that from inception to announcement it’s been one of the quickest large projects he’s seen, and the league has watched 27 stadiums be built by its teams.

Batson, tasked with bringing the project to life, got emotional when discussing it Saturday, saying “For someone that grew up (in Georgia), it’s pretty damn cool.” He later added, it’s “a great day for soccer in our country and a clear message to world that our best days are yet to come.”

Batson has been scouting sites around metro Atlanta for months. A decision is expected to be announced in January 2024. The choice is down to two sites. One is on the land owned by Tyler Perry at Fort McPherson. It is considered a good spot because of its proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and downtown. The other also is on the Southside. Its location hasn’t yet been revealed.

Parlow Cone said negotiations are ongoing. She hopes that ground can be broken by the end of March 2024. The site will be hundreds of acres in size. Blank’s donation simply is a down payment. More partners will be required.

“This is a once-in-a-generation moment for soccer in the U.S.,” Parlow Cone said. “Atlanta is the perfect place for us to embark on this work.”

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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1

March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1

March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0

March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1

March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1

April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0

April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1

April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2

April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1

April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1

May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1

May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1

May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0

May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3

May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3

June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0

June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1

June 21 Atlanta United 2, New York City 2

June 24 New York Red Bulls 4, Atlanta United 0

July 2 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0

July 8 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

July 12 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

July 15 Orlando City 2, Atlanta United 1

July 25 Miami 4, Atlanta United 0 in Leagues Cup

July 29 Cruz Azul 1 (5), Atlanta United (4) 1 in Leagues Cup

Aug. 20 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 0

Aug. 26 Atlanta United 4, Nashville 0

Aug. 30 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

Sept. 2 Atlanta United 2, FC Dallas 2

Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 5 p.m.

Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA