Soccer finds a new home in Atlanta

Mercedes-Benz Stadium is set to be one of the 16 host venues when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026. The venue has hosted a Super Bowl among other large scale events in the past. // Photo by Taylor Gray Student Publications

On June 16, FIFA announced that Atlanta would be one of 16 cities in North America to host the World Cup. The announcement, although exciting, was not surprising for those who have been closely watching the rise in popularity of soccer in Atlanta and other cities across the U.S. 

Atlanta is no stranger to hosting sporting events. From the 1996 Summer Olympics, partially hosted on Tech’s campus, to the 2019 Super Bowl held in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta has successfully played the role of a host city. But hosting the World Cup is a new challenge. 

The World Cup, held every four years, is one of the most anticipated and viewed international sporting events. It has never seen the United States men’s national soccer team (USMNT) win the tournament. In fact, the men’s team’s best performance at a World Cup was in 1930, when they placed third. From 1950 until 1990, the U.S. did not qualify. More recently, the USMNT was absent from the 2018 World Cup after losing to Trinidad and Tobago in a qualifying match. The disappointing loss drew severe criticism of the team, especially when comparing their recent performance to the success of the women’s team.

For decades, soccer did not have a home in the U.S. — players and fans alike had to turn abroad to find excitement and support for the sport. Professional soccer did not really start in the U.S. until the 1960s with the formation of the North American Soccer League (NASL), the predecessor to Major League Soccer (MLS). Compared to Italy’s Serie A, founded in 1898, and England’s Football League First Division, founded in 1888, NASL’s lifetime was not long. NASL’s last season was in 1984, only 17 years after it was founded. 

The U.S. lacks the history and devotion to soccer that other countries carry so proudly. Football, baseball and basketball have, for decades, been the focus of American fans and sponsors. One reason for this could be the many differences between soccer and more commonly played sports in the U.S.

Soccer has a completely different pace than a football game that has frequent stops in play, or baseball games that last hours. With the exception of half time, injuries and fouls, soccer has constant play for 90 minutes. But despite this, soccer games are much more low-scoring than football or basketball games and a single moment can decide the match. Americans have long preferred a high-scoring game, faster pace or — in the case of baseball — one that is proudly labeled as “America’s pastime.” 

This has disconnected the U.S. from what is considered “the beautiful game” in the rest of the world. In 2018, the World Cup final between France and Croatia averaged 517 million viewers, with 1.1 billion viewers watching at some point during the match. In contrast, the Super Bowl held that same year between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots had approximately 103 million viewers. 

American players must leave the U.S. and play abroad to get the level of play and support that can catapult them into international success. On the flipside, it is very common for successful soccer players to only play in the MLS near the end of their careers — players like Wayne Rooney and David Beckham both did so. MLS has historically been where soccer player’s careers die, not where they begin. 

Without having a national team that is known to perform well in competitions, it is hard to keep fans’ spirits up. To add to this, for years, it has been difficult for fans of soccer in the U.S. to attend games to watch many of their favorite teams and players in action. But times are changing.

In the 2022 World Cup, which will be held in Qatar later this year, the USMNT hopes that they will be able to redeem their 2018 absence from the tournament. With an increase in young players having success in European leagues, that might be possible. Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna, Juventus’ Weston McKennie and AC Milan’s Sergiño Dest are just a few of many young players who have shown their talent abroad and are hoping to rebuild the USMNT.

Having the World Cup co-hosted by the U.S. is a sign that attitudes towards soccer are changing, including in Atlanta. In 2014, Atlanta got its own MLS team with Atlanta United (ATL UTD), which began play in 2017, with some of their first games played in Bobby Dodd Stadium. In only their second season, Atlanta United won the MLS Cup. Between the Braves winning the 1995 and 2021 World Series, only Atlanta United’s 2018 championship broke Atlanta’s drought. 

Despite being a young team, ATL UTD is certainly not lacking in its spirited fan base and has become an integral part of Atlanta in just a matter of a few years. Part of that could be due to the fact that Atlanta’s other professional teams, the Falcons and Hawks, have historically had less-than-stellar performance, and Atlantans were looking for a fresh start and new team to rally behind. ATL UTD broke several attendance records, including a record-breaking 73,019 attendance at their 2018 championship match.

Besides MLS soccer, Atlanta is already hosting international soccer.  Bobby Dodd held El Súper Clásico, a match-up of two teams in the highest league of soccer in Mexico’s Liga MX, Chivas de Guadalajara and Club América, this past Sunday. For fans of soccer of all ages, having the 2026 World Cup held in Atlanta is a huge moment. Atlanta will be welcoming players at the top of their sport into Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Four years from now, it is unlikely that Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi will still be playing, but Atlanta could see the likes of Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland playing for their national teams. Most excitingly, we could finally see the USMNT’s young talent shock the rest of the world and do something they have rarely done in the past — win on a global stage and affirm that soccer has found a new home.