For at least the next 12 years, Wednesday’s game between Mexico and Nigeria may be as close at Atlanta will get to experience a World Cup atmosphere. But it also gave a glimpse into what could happen if a Major League Soccer franchise one day comes to Atlanta.
Inside the Georgia Dome was the important stuff: More than 68,000 fans — breaking the record by more than 13,000 for soccer in Atlanta — watched two teams test the rosters that they likely will use when they try to fulfill the dreams of their nations when the World Cup begins in Brazil in three months. The teams played to a 0-0 tie.
Outside the Dome was the fun stuff that has made the World Cup arguably the world’s most popular sports event, and part of the reasons that there is growing call for a soccer team in the city: Fans of the teams, the sport and new experiences mingled.
“I think the local and international media attention on this game, as well as the attendance at the game, speak to an increasingly high level of interest in this sport,” said Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who is in discussions with MLS about bringing an expansion franchise to Atlanta. “It definitely supports the fact that Atlanta is an attractive market for soccer, whether that be MLS or our ability to host a FIFA World Cup or national team games like this one.”
Dressed in the 5-foot-tall feathered head gear and garb of the 16th century Aztec king Cuauhtemoc, Alfonzo Rueda posed for what he estimated to be at least 300 photographs as he walked around the Dome. The Vazquez family from Oxford, Miss., arrived Wednesday afternoon and set up a tailgate near Gate D. The family enjoyed seviche and other dishes that made stomachs say “Ole!”
Albert Rico flew in from Los Angeles for the game. California was one of 40 states from which tickets were purchased, according to game organizers Soccer United Marketing.
“It’s Mexico, dude,” he said in explaining why he would fly across the country. “Look at all the families. Look at the little kids. When you love soccer, you are there.”
TV network trucks — at least one that has been broadcasting live since Tuesday — made their homes in various parking lots, broadcasting news to fans around the world.
It was a carnival. It was a soccer game. It was another indication that Atlanta, with its growing population, changing demographics and business influences, is steadily growing in stature in the sport.
The city was one of those included in the United States’ failed bid to land the 2022 World Cup, which was awarded to Qatar. The 2026 World Cup hasn’t been awarded.
But the city has successfully hosted games in the Gold Cup, as well as other friendlies between countries and clubs in the past years.
And Atlanta may have a team, which may bring similar experiences as Wednesday’s game, to call its own if Blank and MLS can conclude their discussions.
“We don’t know why Atlanta doesn’t have a professional soccer team,” said Rueda, who is originally from Mexico City but now lives in Marietta. “A lot of people would go with it and help it out. We would love to have a team in Atlanta.”
It’s important to note that Atlanta’s support for soccer shouldn’t be viewed through green-, white- and red-tinted glasses. “El Tri,” as the team is known, is perennially popular, usually dominating the attendance no matter where it plays. In the past nine months, Mexico has played two games in Atlanta — the first being last summer’s Gold Cup — helping to draw more than 120,000 people to the Dome.
Supporting that popularity and the World Cup feel to Wednesday’s game, more than 450 media members, most of them from Mexico-based news outlets, covered Wednesday’s game. Six TV networks — two in the United States, two in Mexico and two in Nigeria — broadcast the game live.
While it makes for a fun atmosphere, it also can skew the true level of support Atlanta may have for soccer. An exhibition between Mexico’s Club America and England’s Manchester City in 2010 had an announced attendance of 33,271, the lowest mark of the six soccer events held at the Dome since 2009.
But Garber said Tuesday that his league uses these games as a barometer to gauge if MLS will receive the levels of support needed to succeed in cities that are exploring adding a team.
“We are still an emerging league,” he said. “If you don’t have support for big games you won’t have support for an MLS team.”
Atlanta, once again, seemed to pass.
“This has exceeded our expectations,” Garber said. “It has exceeded the expectations of the Mexican Federation. This is a bold statement of support for high-level soccer in the Southeast.
“The sport continues to show signs of real growth. This will represent an opportunity for all of us who want to see MLS come to Atlanta.”