MARIETTA, Ga. -- When the United States hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994, they were told by the sport's governing body that they needed a legitimate soccer league. If they could do it, it would be key to getting one of the world's largest sporting events back in the country.
More than two decades later, the American World Cup is still considered the most successful ones in history because of the attendance that has remained unmatched from other countries.
All these years later, America is ready to host again, and the country did exactly what they were told to do. Major League Soccer, a league that started with just a few teams owned by just a couple of people, is growing at an exponential rate. With now 22 teams, the league is garnering record attendance and television numbers. In 2017, Atlanta has a lot to do with the excitement growing around the league.
Less than 24 hours after the soccer federations from the U.S., Canada and Mexico announced a joint bid for the 2026 World Cup, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was in Marietta for the opening of Atlanta United FC's new $60 million facility. The 33-acre training space is equipped with six full fields, state of the art locker rooms, gyms and workout rooms, as well as offices.
With a competitive team already on the pitch, and young talent that is bound to catch the eye of European squads, Atlanta United is quickly becoming the model for the rest of the league.
"This is a world class facility. This could be picked up and plopped in Spain or Italy, England, and it would hold its own. It's setting the bar really high for our clubs," Garber told 11Alive Sports. "Who would have thought we'd be in a position where we're building training grounds that cost what our stadiums did when the league was first building soccer stadiums?"
According to Garber, Atlanta United team owner Arthur Blank helped MLS get on its feet 22 years ago, and now the league is something the soccer federation can showcase in its World Cup bid because of those efforts.
Garber said he and Blank had discussed soccer arriving in Atlanta for 10 years, and never did they imagine the amount of success it would have. Atlanta United's first three home games were sell-outs, and their last two games have been draws against the two teams that were in last year's MLS Cup, Seattle and Toronto.
"You have to come to a match and feel the pulse and the passion of our fans. They're unbelievable," Blank said.
"We actually have a country that actually really, really cares about the game," Garber said, who mentioned the unsuccessful bid to get the World Cup in 2022, which was ultimately awarded to Qatar.
"Rather than go away and lick our wounds and never try to come back, from that day to yesterday, we had a plan to bring the World Cup back to the United States," he said. "Nine years from now, we’ll be able to take advantage of all the energy and all the excitement in cities and states across our country."
The deadline for bids is 2018. Currently, North America is the only bid. The soccer federations are hoping a decision is made prior to the planned 2020 announcement date. Europe and Asia cannot enter bids because they are hosting the next two World Cups.
"Hopefully its an unbeatable bid and will give FIFA the incentive to just think about how we can have a fast track to winning it," Garber said.
While there is no word on possible host cities, Atlanta will undoubtedly be interested in being a part of future plans. When Donna Hyland, the President & CEO of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, took the podium during the ceremony on Tuesday, she told Garber that Atlanta hopes to be a part of the World Cup.
"Bid book will be going out soon," Garber said.
The U.S. would host 60 of the matches, including the knockout rounds from quarterfinals to the final. Mexico and Canada will host 10 games each.
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