MLS teams will train in Atlanta

In another test of the city's interest in professional soccer, three Major League Soccer teams -- Columbus, Houston and New England -- will participate in the Atlanta MLS Challenge at Kennesaw State University Soccer Stadium on March 9, 11 and 13.

This marks the first time MLS teams will train in Atlanta. Each team will also play two exhibition games.

T. Fitz Johnson, owner of the Atlanta Beat in the WPS and the Challenge's organizer, said this could be an indicator of Atlanta's interest in bringing a MLS expansion team to the city, which the league has long sought. Commissioner Don Garber has said his league can't be considered truly national until it has a team in the Southeast.

Atlanta is the most-populous metro area to never have a MLS team. Miami, which is larger, had a team but it folded. Dan Courtemanche, the league's executive vice president of marketing, said Atlanta could be a success in the league because of its population and demographics.

Courtemanche said the league will be monitoring the Challenge, but because it's a series of exhibition games, it wouldn't be a significant factor in the league's hopes for one day placing a team in the city.

Johnson said if the Challenge can sell at least 6,000 tickets for each of the games, the event would be a success. The stadium seats 8,300.

“If Atlanta is to be all we want it to be, we need to find our spot as a global participant in soccer," Jeffrey Bowman, CEO of Crawford & Company, said in a release. He is also chairman of a soccer cabinet of Atlanta-based CEOs who are dedicated to using soccer to grow the city's businesses. "We will need an MLS team to do that.  It is great to have this chance to show MLS that Atlanta will be a great city for its future.”

It will also be the fifth event featuring professional soccer in the city in less than two years. Mexico will take on Bosnia and Herzegovina in an international friendly on Feb. 9 at the Georgia Dome.

After winning the MLS Cup in 2008 with veterans such as Argentina's Guillermo Barros Schelotto and the United States' Frankie Hejduk, Columbus has gone with a younger squad. The team features U.S. internationals Eddie Gaven, Chad Marshall and Robbie Rogers. The Crew went 14-8-8 last season, finishing second in the Eastern Conference.

Houston fell on hard times last season after winning the MLS Cup in 2006 and ‘07. However, the Dynamo will bring perhaps the best-known player in forward Brian Ching, who has scored 10 goals in 43 appearances for the U.S. national team. Houston went 9-15-6 last year, finishing seventh in the Western Conference.

Interestingly, Houston defeated New England both times for the title. The Revolution are a four-time runner-up, also losing in 2002 and 2005. The Revolution will also bring a young squad, featuring players from the U.S., France, Gambia and Serbia, among other countries. New England went 9-16-5, finishing sixth in the East last season.

Atlanta MLS Challenge

Where: Kennesaw State University Soccer Stadium

Tickets: Start at $20 and can be purchased at www.theatlantabeat.com

The schedule

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

March 11, 7:30 p.m.: Columbus vs. Houston

March 13, TBD: New England vs. Houston

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