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Explaining Atlanta, the unforeseen soccer hotbed of America

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A trip for Red Bulls-Atlanta became a search into how the Five Stripes captured the imagination of a once-derided sports city.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC
The Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd celebrates Josef Martinez’s equalizing penalty in the second half on July 7.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA – The horns blare and the television camera zooms out for a moment, to capture a special scene. Mercedes-Benz Stadium: over 60,000 standing fans wrap around the turf. The atmosphere manifested on match-day is a snapshot but far from the whole picture, far from the full explanation as to why a city that was labeled fair-weather for most of its sports is setting the standard in MLS.

In traveling down to the Peach City for the worldwide soccer circus on July 7, I took in more than a match. I witnessed a city that has fallen for its soccer team. The $150 million dollar – the going-rate for MLS expansion – question is how?

Outside on match-day was a carnival atmosphere, with tens of thousands scattered throughout the spacious Mercedes-Benz Stadium campus, from the grass fields and tailgate by the media entrance to the loud fan zone up the skyscraping elevators by the main entrance.

But as breathtaking as the sheer mass of fans was, what stood out even more was the club’s tangible presence throughout the city. Kids and young adults, particularly, wore the iconic black and red stripes at the airport, in parks and on streets. Billboards throughout the city with star players like Tito Villalba read “The Stripes Define Us.”

When I brought up Atlanta United, people were not only aware, but engaged. On my way to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on a sweltering Sunday morning, my Uber driver asked curiously if there was a game. I thought I had finally, sadly, met someone who hadn’t gotten caught up in the excitement. However, as her car pulled up to the drop off, she turned around and dispelled that notion, further hammering home how much the Five Stripes have captured the imagination of Atlanta.

“I just went to my first game last weekend,” she said excitedly. “I enjoyed it. Sec. 116, row 20, seat 15. But I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the stadium.”

Later that night, after the bedlam of a storybook World Cup ending for the United States Women and another heated chapter in the Atlanta-Red Bulls rivalry, I walked along tree-lined Piedmont Avenue toward a bar called The Nook, where an Atlanta United flag flew from the outdoor patio.

Hours after Red Bulls-Atlanta, I ran into several United fans coming out of this bar as I was coming in. One of them was nice enough to talk for 40 minutes and help me understand Atlanta’s soccer culture.
James Justice

There I met an Atlanta United founding season ticket holder named Austin, who was incredibly generous with his time and helped connect many of the dots about the unforeseen rise of America’s newest soccer hotbed.

Atlanta, as he pointed out, is one of the biggest transplant cities in the United States. Census.gov data shows that Atlanta had the 10th largest population increase from 2016 to 2017 (+13,323), and of that top 10, Atlanta was second in terms of percentage increase (+2.74%), behind only Frisco (+7.60%) and right ahead of Seattle (+2.41%) – perhaps strategically, many of these cities with the largest population influxes are MLS hubs or rumored expansion cities.

As a side-note, Atlanta is unique in its population dispersion. The city itself is smaller in number than one might think. Its 2019 ranking, according to the website World Population Review, is 37th in the nation at 501,178, behind Oklahoma City, Memphis and Louisville, neither of whom support multiple top-tier professional sports teams, let alone four. However, in its entirety, the Atlanta metro area is ninth in the nation according to Statista.com, with a total of 5.9 million inhabitants.

Often labeled a lackluster sports city because of that high transplant rate, Austin pointed out that, while many come to Atlanta with ingrained allegiances to MLB, NFL or NBA teams in other cities, few have any strong ties to an MLS franchise. From there, because United has generated such a buzz, people are quick to adopt the new club. It is a way for transplants – for which there are many – to embrace their new home, without throwing away connections to their old one.

“In the same way where, with football you’d say, ‘OK, if you’re from Atlanta, you can’t be a Patriots fan, because what happened three years ago,” Austin says, to which at that moment, someone walking toward the bar shoots back, “Damn right!”

“Or if you’re from Green Bay, you can’t be a Vikings fan, or whatever. There’s not so much of that with soccer right now. Because, there’s kind of the overarching women’s team, men’s team and the general interest in soccer, but there’s not so much of a rivalry yet among teams. Now, it’s definitely budding and it’s fostering, but there hasn’t been one yet that keeps you being a fan of wherever you move to.”

This explains the momentum, but the initial boom set the stage for it all. Fittingly, on the day when the United States women’s national team lifted its fourth World Cup trophy, Austin references the women’s 2015 triumph, as well as the men’s escapade in the 2014 World Cup, as being integral stepping stones toward Atlanta United’s formation in 2016. United shocked the American soccer landscape when it announced 22,000 season ticket holders the summer before its 2017 inaugural season, and so much of that excitement was fostered from the back-to-back summers of World Cups.

On top of that, a great deal of the demand was born from a general yearning for more than one Atlanta sports team in the spring and summer. Before Atlanta United, if one wasn’t a baseball – and more specifically, a Braves – fan, the slog from February to football season was painful.

“Before United got here, I’d always describe it, like, I feel like I’m living for four months and then I’m on life support for the other eight, getting back around to college football,” Austin said.

So, the ground was fertile in Atlanta, but Owner Arthur Blank, President Darren Eales, Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra and company still had to sow the seeds carefully for United to blossom into what it has. United share a brand-new, state-of-the-art venue in Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the NFL’s Falcons – who Blank also owns – but it has been an equal, autonomous relationship from the get-go.

Walking through the field level tunnel to the away locker room for post-match interviews, I pass the spacious locker room that is exclusively for Atlanta United. Most of the signage in the concourse and around the mezzanine is purposely electronic, so that it can be easily switched between the Falcons and United. And, of course, both teams wear black and red, so about anything that isn’t digital still fits either context.

“Even in the middle of football season, I go on a Wednesday and it’s a United game, it’s like, this is Atlanta United’s stadium, that’s just what it is,” Austin tells me. “Then, you go on a Sunday, if it’s a football game, and you’re like, this is the Falcons’.”

It may seem like waxing poetic, but it is no hyperbole to say what Atlanta United has built is pioneering. Match-day carries with it the feelings of a college football town packaged into a European street or South American favela. And, crucially, that atmosphere hasn’t alienated new fans. Followers of the Braves, Georgia, Falcons and Hawks alike have seamlessly made United part of their sports lexicon, something that has been a particular struggle among many MLS original markets.

As someone who has invested his adult life – and sacrificed his body – in MLS through thick and considerable thin, New York Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas can revel in settings like a full Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“You almost have to stop and acknowledge it and say, is this Major League Soccer in the United States of America!?” Armas said in an interview after training this week. “This is pro soccer in our country, are you kidding me? You do stop and revel in that.”

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC
Chris Armas acknowledges the traveling fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium following the Red Bulls’ intense 3-3 draw with Atlanta United.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

“That’s a credit to Major League Soccer. They, once again, got it right, picking a city that, like, would everyone of bet on Atlanta? I’m not sure how the support goes all the time for their pro sports teams, but, man, they nailed it.”

But the flip side of Atlanta’s success story are the tarps closing off sections at his Red Bull Arena, or his former club the Chicago Fire’s imminent abandonment of its soccer specific stadium in the hopes of better turnouts in oversized but downtown Soldier Field. It is hard to envision MLS being the top league it aspires to be with two of the nation’s top three markets – New York and Chicago – unable to capture the imagination like Atlanta or so many other newer success stories.

“The single entity was probably right then and is, to hold it together,” Armas said. “Not everyone quite understood that, that was important for us to survive. But now, it’s maybe not so much about surviving, it’s about thriving. We’re at a different level…So, you got to evolve, you’ve got to innovate.”

Atlanta shows what the future could look like throughout the United States. Some MLS markets, including Cascadia rivals Seattle and Portland, Kansas City, Salt Lake, Orlando, Cincinnati, etcetera, are about there right now, but others are far behind. Sure, anyone can see a full Mercedes-Benz Stadium through a screen, but they can’t feel the civic pride, can’t experience the impression that club leaves on its city.

As the clock neared 9 p.m. on July 7, and I sat with a cold beverage on The Nook’s outdoor patio in midtown Atlanta, I got another glimpse of that impression. Without even asking, a waiter walked over and tuned the channel to FS1 for the Gold Cup final: USA-Mexico. As if I needed any more sport on that day, and any more proof about how embedded soccer was into the fabric of the Peach City, there it was, the cherry on top.