If you want confirmation about the power of soccer in America, come to Atlanta.
The opening weekend of Major League Soccer last week — an American league maligned and lauded in equal measure— was a boon for the sport, especially in its new expansion cities, and none more so than the Mecca of the Dirty South, Atlanta, home of Outkast, The Varsity and Ted Turner, and now The Beautiful Game.
The numbers speak for themselves, particularly this one: 55,297.
That’s how many were on hand to watch Atlanta’s heartbreaking 1-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls. That’s more than watched Liverpool vs. Arsenal in the Premier League that same weekend. It felt even bigger than that.
“It was a wild ride out there tonight and it’s only just the beginning,” said Carlos Bocanegra. He is a former US National Team star and a veteran of top flight clubs in England (Fulham) and Scotland (Rangers), who took the job as Atlanta’s technical director following his retirement. Bocanegra, like a lot of Atlanta’s front office executives, was buzzing in the wake of the first-day atmosphere despite the loss.
“The support was amazing. We’ve all been excited and anxious waiting to actually get out there and play and show up for Atlanta and, man, did they show up for us.”
The common theme among the media throng on hand — including yours truly, who has been on hand to cover an SEC Championship, a Stanley Cup and a World Series — was that this was as big a sporting event as anyone had ever covered. Atlanta United defender Greg Garza, one of the team’s top players and a US national team regular, said after the Sunday evening thriller that the home opener had the same atmosphere as the time he played for United States against bitter rival Mexico in Texas.
This all would be a win for the MLS if the soccer awakening happened anywhere. But it happened in Atlanta.
Though, like so many other citizens of the South’s Gotham City, I am a transplant, like any Atlantan that has learned to appreciate the city’s myriad benefits, I love this place. So what I will write next comes from with the best intentions.
Atlanta is a bad sports town, y’all.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a major city with more major pro sports teams with more people in it to support them with so few who actually do. Forget the lean years of the pre-1990s; once the Braves stopped being able to print National League East title banners in Spring Training with all those dominant pitching staffs, America’s Team had as much trouble drawing crowds as the perpetually under-attended Falcons and Hawks. We even had a hockey team for 15 minutes — remember that? No, me neither.
And now — bam — one new sport, one game, and more than halfway to one hundred thousand fans show up. That 55,297 home-opener attendance mark is nearly as much per game as the 2016-17 Super Bowl bound Falcons and more than what the Braves pull in two games and the Hawks in three.
Sure, it’s only one game, a special occasion. But Atlanta United has 30,000-plus season ticket holders paying to watch soccer in Georgia Tech’s earnestly dilapidated football stadium, before they move into the state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz stadium they’ll share with the Falcons. That 55,297 number isn’t going to fall very far.
The sport of soccer, and the timing of the MLS season, are also going to be factors driving interest and attendance going forward.. Soccer is a welcoming game. Its fan base is made up of regular sports-crazed folks, as well as the footy-obsessed. Just look at the overwhelming success MLS has had in places like Portland, Seattle and Salt Lake City — not exactly huge sporting towns.
And thanks to a large part of the season schedule running through June, July and August, Atlanta United will only have the Braves to contend with — and that team struggled to fill seats BEFORE they moved their stadium to the city’s suburbs.
But demographics and cultural touchstones aren’t the only reason fans may turn out in droves to watch Atlanta United FC. These guys can play.
The club brass shirked the opportunity to bring in a quick-fix, big-name star to boost interest (a la the David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Frank Lampard experiments that have had less than stellar results in the past) and instead put together a young, speedy, flashy and—yeah—handsome team of up-and-coming South American stars, combined with steady American veterans (including U.S. soccer goalkeeping star Brad Guzan) all under a world renowned coach in Gerardo “Tata” Martino. The man whose resume includes stints in charge of Barcelona and the Argentina and Paraguay national teams employs a relentless workman’s ethic on the field, emphasising possession as well as the vision to break quickly on the counter.
“We want to control the ball but also be aggressive in winning the ball back if we lose it,” said Martino. “We want to be aggressive and continue to show the city of Atlanta good soccer.”
Atlanta might soon have to fight to keep the gems they’ve unearthed from going to bigger name clubs overseas, but for now players like Yamil Asad (scorer of the team’s first goal), Hector Villalba, Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez are the spitfires that make up a suped-up soccer machine. Paired with veteran lynch pins like captain Michael Parkhurst and national team standout Garza, Atlanta United form one solid MLS team.
It was a team that shredded the Eastern Conference champion Red Bulls for one half in the team’s inaugural game, although that same youthful exuberance that spurred on the 1-0 lead at halftime was at the center of some mistakes that let in a pair of goals and gave the game away late in the second half. But it’s a process, on the field and in the stands, and it’s easy to see things developing into something special in both areas.
“The support in Atlanta is there,” Garza said. “We’ll keep asking the people to come, and we’ll continue to bring the energy along with them.”