ATLANTA — A crowd of 51,834 people filled Mercedes-Benz Stadium to watch a soccer match on Wednesday night, but this time Atlanta United was not involved.
It may be something for the Atlanta sports fan to get used to. The Mexico men’s national met Venezuela in an international friendly, and the match had the flavor of a home game for El Tri.
There were some familiar faces involved. The match was an up-close look for fans at former Atlanta United manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino in his new post with Mexico. Last year’s Major League Soccer Most Valuable Player and Atlanta’s leading goal scorer Josef Martínez subbed on in the second half to a standing ovation. The embrace between Martínez and Martino prior to the game was captured by cameras on the Mercedes-Benz halo board and drew a similar reaction.
While star power in these non-Atlanta showcases is a plus, it’s not a requirement for national teams or clubs overseas to play in Atlanta.
“The conversations with the league of having Mexico play here and having a signed deal came long before Tata became the head coach,” Tim Zulawski, chief revenue officer for Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment, said. “With the talent on the Atlanta United’s roster we know our players will constantly be called up to national team duty and hopefully from time-to-time, they will get to play in front of their home crowds here at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but it is not a necessity to bring a match to Atlanta.”
Atlanta is a promising candidate to be one of 10 American cities to host matches during the 2026 World Cup. The current plot for that tournament also calls for games to be played in three cities each in Canada and Mexico.
It’s still early in the process, but the confidence of local officials to be involved seven summers from now seems high. The city is reportedly eying a prominent spot in the tournament’s semifinals. Proposals will be submitted by next summer for evaluation in late 2020, early 2021.
Atlanta Sports Council president Dan Corso said most discussions about host sites between now and when the bids were announced last summer has been between cities and their respective soccer organizations, and not specifics with regards to 2026 host sites.
“Now, we haven’t yet started, but expect to soon, to get into the process of identifying cities,” Corso said.
Atlanta has a few more things going for it. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is one of the busiest in the world, and direct-flight access for most of the country only helps Atlanta’s case for a hosting bid.
“It’s impressive for a city to accommodate those events, but you need the infrastructure,” Corso said. “I think that starts with the venues. MBS in the case of FIFA World Cup, having the world’s busiest airport really helps.”
The momentum of high-profile events that Atlanta is on, Corso said, can only further strengthen the city’s resume. Subjectively speaking, Atlanta is in the midst of a five-year run that includes five sporting events with broad appeal. The 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship came first, followed by the 2018 MLS All-Star Game and Super Bowl 53. The NCAA Men’s Final Four will be tallied onto that list in 2020, and the recently announced 2021 MLB All-Star Game will follow.
Atlanta’s recent track record of hosting big games only helps, though, if these events are successful.
Perhaps it adds to the appeal that Mexico felt at home in Atlanta, playing in front of 51,000-plus fans. Martino has a soft spot for Atlanta, to be sure, but the large crowd on a weeknight — with half of the upper decks blocked off — showcased the city’s diverse soccer fandom. It’s not only about Atlanta United, or the U.S. men’s national team.
“For the big quantity of Mexicans that were here, I have no doubt that [Mercedes-Benz Stadium] should be considered [for the World Cup],” Martino said. “If on top of that Mexico plays here, that’s an even bigger reason.”
What soccer cred the city of Atlanta has, it owes to Atlanta United. But, Mercedes-Benz Stadium could see more Five Stripe-less friendlies. Executives are receptive to the European market, and that includes the English Premier League, which already plays friendly matches against MLS clubs in the summer.
“We certainly hope so,” Zulawski said. “We know that when those clubs come to the United States to play, they want to play in the best facilities and in front of the largest crowds, and I think we have that here in Atlanta.”