Atlanta Primed to Become U.S. Soccer Capital Ahead of 2026 World Cup
Atlanta United opens its inaugural season on March 5, 2017, against the New York Red Bulls at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus. Image courtesy of Atlanta United.
The U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) plans to build its first-ever national training center in Atlanta, placing the city at the center of its efforts to advance the sport across the country.
The announcement comes at a crucial juncture for the USSF as North America prepares to host several global events in the coming years, highlighted by the 2026 World Cup, with Atlanta among the selected host cities. While the exact location of the training center has yet to be determined, its eventual construction in the metro area has the potential to cement Atlanta's status as a driving force in American soccer, according to Kirk Bowman, director of Georgia Tech's Vertically Integrated Project: Soccer, Community, Innovation, and Politics.
"I see it as the cherry on the cake, and a way that Atlanta really could be the capital of soccer for the United States and maybe even all of North America," said Bowman, Regents Entrepreneur and professor in the School of International Affairs.
In their announcement, USSF leaders praised Atlanta's passion for soccer, which Bowman says is reflected in the meteoric rise of Atlanta United. Since the club's inaugural match at Bobby Dodd Stadium in 2017, the Five Stripes have continuously led Major League Soccer's attendance figures. While the numbers are impressive, Bowman says the makeup of the crowds gives Atlanta its sterling reputation in the soccer community.
"Atlanta is a multicultural city. If you look at the crowds, it's like the United Nations at those games. There are people from every background, from different cultures, languages, and communities, including the hip-hop community. So, Atlanta has a reputation of being a hotbed for soccer fans, and everywhere you go in the world, more people recognize Atlanta for soccer than they do for hosting the Olympic Games," he said.
Along with providing world-class resources to the USSF's 27 national teams, the training center will host youth tournaments, community conferences, and will serve as a gathering place for the broader soccer ecosystem.
Community engagement has been a key factor in the sport's continued growth in Atlanta dating back to the Atlanta Chiefs in the mid-1960s. Bowman explains that prior to the inception of the city's first professional soccer team, just two high schools fielded teams of their own. By 1969, as players began touring the area and speaking to schools, that number had grown to 160.
Along with the work being done by grassroots organizations such as Soccer in the Streets, including its Station Soccer program, Bowman views the training center's construction as a similar opportunity to introduce the sport to a new generation of Atlantans, particularly in underrepresented communities.
"Community engagement is already happening here, and it has been for a long time with a lot of successful organizations. So, additional notoriety highlighting the sport and additional dollars can go a long way with these organizations that are already so successful," he said.
Still, there is work to be done to connect with all communities around the metro area. "Soccer has become a real growth sport in the northern arc around Atlanta and in the city, but there is still so much to do geographically and to really engage communities south of I-20," Bowman said.
It’s Atlanta! — Again
Proximity to the world's busiest airport helped attract the USSF to Atlanta, as did a $50 million donation from Arthur Blank, philanthropist and principal owner of Atlanta United. The gift will increase accessibility at the training facility, funding the construction of facilities for U.S. Soccer's nine Extended National Teams, particularly in support of the Cerebral Palsy, Deaf, and Power Soccer National Teams. It will also fuel the federation's efforts to bolster support of women's youth national team camps and women's coaching and mentorship initiatives nationwide.
"Atlanta's incredible passion for soccer, corporate community, and unmatched infrastructure make this a natural home for the National Training Center. I'm very confident our community will help America's finest soccer players compete on a global level like never before. I'm also pleased to help U.S. Soccer with community outreach and soccer development among underserved communities as part of our contribution and know that it will benefit scores of young people through engagement with the beautiful game for generations to come," Blank said.
USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone noted that Atlanta Mayor and Tech alumnus Andre Dickens "welcomed U.S. Soccer with open arms.”
"When it comes to soccer in the United States, the South's got something to say," Dickens said in a nod to Outkast member and Atlanta native, André 3000. "Atlanta is a sports city. We are a soccer city, and now, we are the capital of soccer in this nation."
The project's completion is expected to coincide with the 2026 World Cup, and the selected site will be announced in January 2024.