Atlanta quickly has become capital of soccer in North America

The best players in the world are headed here to compete and train.
In late 2023, U.S. Soccer Federation announced at a press conference the relocation of their headquarters moving from Chicago to Atlanta. Atlanta quickly has become capital of soccer in North America. Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

In late 2023, U.S. Soccer Federation announced at a press conference the relocation of their headquarters moving from Chicago to Atlanta. Atlanta quickly has become capital of soccer in North America. Miguel Martinez /

Ten years ago, soccer in Atlanta was more of a hope than a passion.

There was no Atlanta United. There was no Mercedes-Benz Stadium. There were occassional matches featuring clubs from other countries and national teams but nothing that made the city stand out as a soccer hotbed.

In a very short time, a combination of factors have turned Atlanta into the capital of soccer in North America.

Atlanta United, owned by Arthur Blank, took the city by storm with a fanaticism that hasn’t abated. FIFA announced that 2026 World Cup matches would be played in Atlanta. The schedule will be released on Feb. 4. The SheBelieves Cup, featuring the U.S. women’s national team, will be played here in April. The Copa America, featuring some of the best men’s national teams, will kick off in Atlanta in June.

Of equal importance, the U.S Soccer Federation announced last year that it was going to move its headquarters to the city and build a first-of-its-kind training center for its 27 teams, in Fayette County. The decision was helped by a $50 million donation from Blank and a partnership with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola.

“We realized that if we convinced them to come to Atlanta, by default, we are the epicenter,” said Steve Cannon, CEO of Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment and who served as an unofficial consultant when the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) was looking for its new home. “So, while it wasn’t our intention, the minute U.S. Soccer came out looking for cities that might eventually host their National Training Center, Blank connected all the dots in a way that said, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity to shine a global spotlight on my city.’ That’s what he saw. And that’s what we’re delivering on.”

Bert Smith, lover of soccer, moved to Atlanta in 1999. He would go to the Brewhouse or Fado Irish Pub to watch Liverpool or Tottenham matches in Europe. He became an Atlanta United season-ticket holder not because he was interested in MLS – he wasn’t at the time – but because the team was going to play near where he works at CNN.

Bert Smith moved to Atlanta in 2019. He became an Atlanta United season-ticket holder for the 2017 season. He remains a season-ticket holder for the MLS team.

Credit: Bert Smith

icon to expand image

Credit: Bert Smith

Smith sees what is happening with the sport in Atlanta, as do many others.

“It just seems like it makes sense,” Smith said. “I couldn’t have imagined it 20 years ago. But in the past 10 years, it’s unbelievable.”

U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone, whose dream it was to build the combination headquarters/training center, is excited about Atlanta becoming the federation’s home and its impact on the sport in this country. Cone played for the U.S. women’s team during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and then the Atlanta Beat, one of the many defunct teams from the city’s past.

“It’s going to become a destination for the sport,” she said of the National Training Center. “If you are involved in soccer in our country, there’s no doubt you’re going to find your way to Atlanta and our National Training Center. It’s where you will aspire to be.”

Atlanta business leaders are just as excited when thinking about the events that are coming and the incremental revenues they will bring.

“When you have U.S. Soccer as a catalyst, I think there’s absolutely no doubt we’re going to attract more soccer events here into the city,” said William Pate, President and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I believe it will also attract soccer-related businesses that will want to be in Atlanta so that they can do business with U.S. Soccer.”

The work on the headquarters is underway.

Officials from U.S. Soccer are in Europe touring other federations and club training facilities, including Leicester City, St. George’s Park (England’s NTC), Tottenham Spurs, Clairefontaine (France’s NTC) and DFB (Germany’s NTC) as they gather information on what their NTC will need. A ground-breaking is expected in April. They hope the complex, which will cover hundreds of acres near Trilith Studios, will be completed before the 2026 World Cup.

The speed with which Atlanta has become a soccer hub that will be the home of the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams is dizzying.

There has been professional soccer in Atlanta for decades. The Chiefs, who won the city’s first pro sports title, were the trailblazers. They were followed by a myriad of men’s and women’s team playing outdoor and indoor soccer at places ranging from The Omni to Silverbacks Park near Spaghetti Junction.

Some of the world’s most famous club teams — Manchester City, A.C. Milan and Club America — have played single matches at the Georgia Dome. The Mexican men’s national team has played here 10 times. The U.S. women have played here twice and the men once in the past 15 years.

But the city didn’t have a team to call its own, a hook to prove it was interested in the sport.

Blank had for years considered starting an MLS expansion franchise. The league was skeptical that the sport would work in the Southeast. It had seen Miami and Tampa start and fold.

Blank kept working on MLS Commissioner Don Garber. In April 2014, the franchise was founded at an event near Centennial Park. Season-ticket sales soared. The tailgate lot near The Varsity for the team’s inaugural match was wall-to-wall people, many of whom had already bought some sort of Atlanta United gear. The team has led MLS in attendance every season by averaging more than 45,000 per game and holds numerous records, as well as a few trophies, including the 2018 MLS Cup.

The National Training Center will be another step toward establishing the city’s reputation as the soccer capital of North America.

U.S. Soccer began discussing years ago the need to establish a training center to ease travel and take advantage of the synergies that can come from a central spot to share ideas and practices. It was a longtime wish for the players, according to Atlanta United Vice President Carlos Bocanegra, who made more than 100 appearances for the team.

In past years, and still ongoing, the team would typically train in or near a city that was hosting one of its matches.

Having never had a National Training Center, Cone and U.S. Soccer partnered with Deloitte in December 2021 to help it figure out what it wanted and where it wanted to be.

The process started with Deloitte’s Tom Zipprich and Darin Buelow asking U.S. Soccer to go through the soul-searching exercising of defining what is important to them. The first meeting between the parties took place at Deloitte’s Texas campus near Dallas. Zipprich and Buelow wanted U.S. Soccer leaders to see the complex to get ideas of what the Federation may need for its headquarters and center.

Eliminating a “dizzying amount of variables” and drilling down to what U.S. Soccer thought it needed took just a couple of weeks. Drawing from experiences helping hundreds of companies, Zipprich and Buelow said it can sometimes take company leaders months.

Next came the more difficult question of where to build the center. That started in the first months of 2022.

When Blank learned that U.S. Soccer was interested in moving from Chicago and building the training center, Cannon said he tapped him on the shoulder and told him there was only one place that should be considered.

“We demonstrated to Major League Soccer that Atlanta United was going to set the league on fire,” Cannon said. “And we believed that by bringing U.S. Soccer, and the National Training Center to Atlanta, that we could build on that in the same kind of way.”

Factors of good weather, an efficient airport and a suitable business climate eliminated many cities. Cannon was an unpaid consultant, helping U.S. Soccer while also admitting to having a bias toward Atlanta. Before joining AMBSE, Cannon was with Mercedes-Benz and led moving its U.S. division headquarters from New Jersey to Atlanta in 2015.

The list of candidate cities was narrowed to about 15. Each was asked a series of questions about potential sites. The list was narrowed to three cities by the end of June 2022.

The process stopped at that point for two reasons. U.S. Soccer began the process of figuring out how it was going to pay for its dream, and it underwent a CEO change with Augusta native JT Batson replacing Will Wilson in September 2022.

Batson began reviewing the finalists in January 2023. Atlanta beat out Cary, N.C., and was announced as the site on Sept. 15, and Fayette County the new home on Dec. 7.

A conceptual image of the U.S. Soccer National Training Center that will be built in Fayette County.

Credit: Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer

icon to expand image

Credit: Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer

“When we were doing the site selection with U.S. Soccer, we talked about how wherever this thing lands, that community will really be able to seize the mantle of being the capital of soccer for the United States,” Buelow said. “There is nothing like the U.S. Soccer National Training Center and headquarters. It’s only going to happen one place once and there’s not another governing body for the sport. So, if Atlanta wants to do some interesting and cool things related to branding and synergies relative to this sport, now, having a massive presence in the community, I think there’s a ton of opportunity, a lot of interesting possibilities for them to do so.”

Bocanegra predicted that having U.S. Soccer in the city will help both parties continue to grow the sport.

“It’s going to raise the level across the board,” he said.

That growth should continue with more events and Atlanta United, led by Blank, continuing to engage with the community, Bocanegra said. One of Blank’s philanthropic efforts is to build 100 mini-pitches in under-resourced communities in the state. Six mini-pitches have been built so far.

Smith remains an Atlanta United season-ticket holder. He has travelled the globe for U.S. Soccer. He said the more matches that will be played in Atlanta, the more tickets he will buy. His story is similar to thousands of people in the city.

Bert Smith and Kelly Carter were part of a group from the Atlanta chapter of the American Outlaws that travelled to Dublin, Ireland  to watch the U.S. women play in April 8, 2023.

Credit: Bert Smith

icon to expand image

Credit: Bert Smith

The sport has come a long way from Atlanta Stadium or watching matches on a television at a local bar.

“This will absolutely transform Atlanta, and between Atlanta United, the trajectory of Major League Soccer, adding in the US Soccer National Training Center, and the World Cup, and the Women’s World Cup, and SheBelieves Cup and all the kind of the national global tournaments, they’re going to find their way through Atlanta, we do really have a legitimate claim on being the most significant presence in soccer in the United States,” Cannon said.

Upcoming soccer events in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

March 9: Atlanta United’s first home match in its eighth MLS season

April 6: SheBelieves Cup doubleheader, featuring the U.S. Women

June 20: Copa America opener featuring Argentina

June 27: U.S. men vs. Panama in Copa America

2025: Possible matches in Club World Cup*

2026: Matches TBA in World Cup

2027: Possible matches in Women’s World Cup*

* Bidding process hasn’t revealed candidate cities

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 at Columbus, 2 p.m.

March 9 vs. New England, 7:30 p.m.

March 17 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

March 23 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

March 31 vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m., FOX

April 6 at NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

April 14 vs. Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m., FOX

April 20 vs. Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

April 27 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

May 4 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FOX

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.