While the move of arguably the greatest soccer player of all time, Lionel Messi, to Inter Miami has spiked national interest in soccer, American soccer has been growing in popularity even before Messi. In 2022, Major League Soccer (MLS) reported record highs in attendance. The value of MLS franchises has increased by 85% since 2019, and the North American continent is preparing to hold the World Cup.
To capitalize on this wave of attention and grow the game further, the US Soccer Federation announced it is moving its headquarters from Chicago, IL to Atlanta, GA. The governing body of American soccer announced plans for the construction of a $50 million training center. The center will house the corporate headquarters of US Soccer but also holds ramifications for the teams directly under it. All 27 of the US’s national teams — the men’s and women’s national teams, the 16 youth teams and nine extended teams — are slated to train at the center. While the exact location within Atlanta will not be known until January of 2024, US Soccer is officially coming to the heart of the Peach State.
Although expected, this move upends years of precedent. Since the 1990s, the US Soccer Federation has been based in Chicago. Due to the restrictions of Chicago’s climate and area, national soccer players attended camps and games in a myriad of cities across the United States. However, most successful soccer federations for other countries often have a centralized base where players can train and compete in a singular location. Therefore, officials considered Atlanta — amongst many candidates — to fill this role. The final decision came down to Atlanta or Cary, North Carolina.
Three factors likely swayed the decision in Atlanta’s favor: corporate partnerships, convenient location and community interest. Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, who also owns Atlanta United, pledged $50 million to finance the training center. Blank also specifically made a commitment to increase accessibility in soccer by funding improved facilities for the Cerebral Palsy, Deaf and Power Soccer, where the players use wheelchairs, National Teams. Furthermore, US Soccer CEO JT Batson announced that Coca-Cola is partnering with the US Soccer Federation. Still, these collaborations are likely the tip of the iceberg. Atlanta is also uniquely suited for the new training center due to its climate and infrastructure. The city’s warm climate would be perfectly suited for the outdoor and indoor practice fields within the training center, whereas cities like Chicago or Kansas City, the site of the Compass Minerals National Performance Center, need to have indoor fields for players’ training.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is also one of the largest airports in the world, which makes it convenient for players arriving from Europe. In fact, issues over transportation logistics were a big reason why efforts to install headquarters in Los Angeles failed. Over twenty years ago, the US Soccer Federation built an earlier version of the National Training Center in Carson, CA, for its winter camps. However, Los Angeles is too far from Europe for it to be a viable candidate for headquarters. Conversely, Atlanta is a city that many flights from Europe connect through.
The cultural fit between US Soccer and Atlanta is also worth acknowledging. Across all North and South American clubs, Atlanta United had the second highest average attendance at 47, 116 spectators per match in the 2022 season. This includes clubs in Mexico and Brazil, where soccer is more ingrained into national culture than in the United States. 2022’s numbers are no fluke —the club has led the MLS in attendance for every season since 2017 and is one of the five most valuable MLS franchises. Simply put, Atlanta loves soccer, and there are very few American cities that can claim to love the sport more.
Although the decision was officially approved by US Soccer’s board of governors, the process of moving is still a work in progress. The federation will not decide on a site within Atlanta until early 2024, and construction has not begun yet amidst the discussions.
Still, Atlanta is essentially being named the heart of American soccer. The best players in the nation will likely spend a significant portion of their national team preparation in the city, while the new faces of American soccer are expected to develop in tandem. Even though it is early, the possibilities of the benefits Atlanta could reap from this move are undoubtedly exciting. Given Atlanta’s corporate presence, climate and community, there are very few other candidate cities that fit US Soccer’s criteria to the same degree. It remains to be seen whether the move will play a key role in elevating the United States to a soccer superpower.