Starting today, the Atlanta Pro Soccer Challenge will feature Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew, Houston Dynamo and New England Revolution in three matches.
Columbus will face New England tonight, then will play Houston on Friday - both games set for 7:30 p.m. starts. On Sunday, Houston will play New England at 3 p.m. in a game televised by CSS.
For a few days, the men's game will be on the field at the still-new stadium that hosts a pair of women's teams: the professional Atlanta Beat and the college team of Kennesaw State.
These games will offer fans a chance to see top-flight professional men's soccer, which has been missing from metro Atlanta for 30 years.
The Atlanta Chiefs launched in 1967 as part of the North American Soccer League, playing a majority of their games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and lasted for more than a decade before folding in 1981.
After the Chiefs' dissolution came the Atlanta Ruckus - and later, the Silverbacks - who have played in the second-tier A-League and United Soccer League, and will now compete in a reincarnated NASL.
Before the original NASL ultimately folded, it drew top international players to the U.S., most notably Brazilian legend Pele, who played three years with the New York Cosmos in the twilight of his career.
The NASL laid the seeds for the creation of Major League Soccer, which played its first games in 1996 and is still active today. After some initial struggles, the popularity of MLS has grown and the league averaged 16,675 fans at its games last season.
"The game continues to grow every year," said Fitz Johnson, the owner and general manager of the Beat. "It seems like we go through a cycle every four years with a World Cup that raises the level of soccer and exposure of soccer to our youngsters. We get excited and get on this high. But we want to try and sustain this high so that our youngsters and folks of all ages can see soccer at its best."
On top of the growth in attendance, there have been improvements in the youth ranks and the level of play from the U.S. national team, not to mention more exposure to the sport on television.
"It's night and day compared to when I was a youth growing up and playing under-6 or under-10 (soccer)," said one of the players who will be manning the nets in Kennesaw this week, Columbus goalkeeper Will Hesmer. "All you had was parents coaching who had never seen a soccer ball, but just wanted to get their kids running around. Now, you have a generation that has played the game, knows the game and watches the game. You can now watch the highest level of the game in Europe on TV here in America. Kids are now getting better tutelage and can work on it themselves."
As the league, and soccer at large, have grown in the U.S., the MLS has looked toward expansion. This season, the league has added expansion in Portland and Vancouver to bring its total to 18 teams.
The MLS would like to add more, and Atlanta is one of many markets that have entered the fray in possibly bidding for a team. This weekend could serve as a trial run to test the viability of men's soccer in this market.
"You can look at it as a test run," Johnson said. "I think it's a great thing for the Atlanta market and what these guys are capable of doing. These guys are playing at the very highest level. I would like to see the fans of Atlanta come out and see the very best in soccer that the U.S. has to offer. I want them to see the beautiful stadium that we have out here. It's another opportunity for the metro Atlanta market to see some very good soccer."
Last year, Kennesaw and the metro-Atlanta area saw the emergence of the Beat and Women's Professional Soccer. The women's league's, in its third season, has drawn some comparisons to the fledgling beginnings of MLS.
"I think it all comes down to trying to be viable and staying around for as long as you can," New England goalkeeper Matt Reis said. "In the early parts of (MLS), there were a lot of rules set up to save money and make sure that the league wasn't a flash in the pan, and it's been around for numerous years. I think that's something that women's soccer is dealing with.
The 35-year-old Reis got his start when MLS still had two Florida-based franchises in Tampa and Miami. But after those two teams ceased operations in 2001, the closest MLS franchises to Atlanta are in Texas, Ohio and Washington, D.C.