MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United has made its mark on MLS in many ways, most of which are obvious to the viewing public. The record setting crowds, the $1.5-billion stadium and record-setting transfer fees all show the extent to which the club and owner Arthur Blank have flexed their muscles strategically, creatively and financially.
Then of course, there's Atlanta winning the right to contest their first-ever MLS Cup in only their second season, before an expected crowd of beyond 70,000 at Mercedes Benz Stadium on Saturday night (8 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TSN, TVAS).
But one of Blank's most important investments is one that draws relatively few headlines, even though it is present nearly every day for players and staff that’s not seen so much on the surface by fans. It’s the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta training facility in Marietta, Ga.
The $60 million facility sits on a 33-acre site featuring a 30,000-sq.-foot headquarters and six full-size fields, including three natural grass pitches and three FieldTurf surfaces. Aside from the elegant first team locker room and fields, the facility houses six different academy locker rooms, a full service kitchen and dining room with balcony access, state-of-the-art sports science facilities with two hydrotherapy pools.
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In other words, it’s a soccer player’s dream.
“If I was 15 or 16 and I walked on a field like this, I think I would've just laid down and rolled around in the grass for a bit," said 14-year MLS veteran Jeff Larentowicz. "I wouldn't have been able to believe it.”
As the player with the third-most MLS appearances in league history, Larentowicz has seen it all when it comes to league player development infrastructure. And he said Monday that, when his career began, a facility like Atlanta's in the domestic soccer landscape would've been unthinkable.
At its opening in April 2017, Blank gave an address to MLS Commissioner Don Garber and and assembled crowd of employees, media and fans that suggested the owner understood just how vital the building is.
“This beautiful training ground is a central piece in the success of our club and represents the vision and dedication of the Atlanta United leadership team,” Blank said. “Our aim for the club is to produce a top-quality, winning product on and off of the pitch and this facility is the cornerstone of that commitment.”
Blank's words have proved prophetic, midfielder Julian Gressel says, with the training hub becoming a place where he even comes to on his off days.
“To have a home base like this is obviously huge, where players can come in every day and know what to expect and have a place to work and get better. Everything we have here is to do that — to get better for the weekend, to recover, to get good food and all these types of things," said Gressel on Monday. "It's definitely something even when we have an off day scheduled, sometimes I still come in here just to take an ice bath or get recovery sped up. I don't know if that happens in MLS a lot, where guys come in and head to the training ground just because they can.
"It's a great moment to share with [Blank] because without him, none of us would be here. We were obviously very excited to see him and hopefully we'll get a chance to be on a stage with him one more time."
Now the Five Stripes aim to give Blank one more night of celebration in return for that investment, one even greater than when Blank was on hand for Leg 2 of the Eastern Conference Championship.
“He cares about this team," Larentowicz said. "He was there, he was happy, and I think he was kind of swept up in how excited we all were not only to win, but to see him and feel like, 'yeah, this is our community.'"