Major League Soccer officially kicked off in Atlanta Sunday night in Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd stadium. Considering the worse disapointment that Atlanta sports fans have lived through, the 2-1 loss in game one of the expansion franchise was more par for the course than disapointing.
The energy inside and around Bobby Dodd was palpable. Downtown Atlanta exuded vibes of college football hype on a Saturday or Falcon pride on a Sunday. Actually, check that, it was different. It felt different than football energy in downtown Atlanta. It felt like a Premiere League club exported their atmosphere for the evening.
Chick-fil-A Kickoffs, Peach Bowls, SEC Championships and even Georgia Tech home games rely on fans from both sides of the aisle to fill the stadium. When 55,297 fans funneled through the monstrous lines on Sunday night, they were behind one team, one city and one cause. Atlanta united. (There was no avoiding that cliché)
Everyone in that building was there for Atlanta. They were there for the city, the team and the opportunity to change the outdated narrative on Atlanta sports. When the team went up 1-0 in 25th minute, Bobby Dodd went bonkers.
My brother and I were in attendance together when Matt Ryan drilled Michael Jenkins running a post-seam route on his first ever NFL pass for a touchdown. We were sitting next to each other when Yamil Asad finished Tyrone Mears’ cross past the keeper for the first goal on the first shot on net.
Before this game kicked off, Atlanta got behind the expansion franchise. Atlanta United shattered the previous expansion franchise season ticket sales record. At 30,000, Atlanta United has the second most season tickets sold in the entire league – beating teams that have been in the league since the beginning.
The success in Atlanta United’s brand is due to not competing with the Falcons, Braves, Hawks and Georgia or Georgia Tech. The Thrashers soldout their first handful of games, but because they competed with the other three professional teams they failed. The city didn’t have the attention span for hockey because hockey is a sport played by many in Georgia.
Soccer hasn’t blown up the way it wanted after Brandi Chastain’s World Cup goal. It hasn’t always been wildly successful all over the country. It’s never going to upstage football in this country in our lifetime. There’s even less a chance that it ever becomes half as popular as college football in the southeast.
Atlanta United isn’t trying to inundate your sports appetite, they’re complimenting it. It’s attacking the demographic that is bored of baseball and looking for something to keep them occupied during the summer until football comes back. They’re doing it by promoting college football-like energy around the fans, not forcing it down their throats.
“On the college football front, once you’re a Georgia or you’re Auburn, that’s it. You’ve got that loyalty, you’re always going to be a Georgia fan. You’re passionate and you’re avid, you tailgate and there’s that great atmosphere. I think that seems to be the feeling around Atlanta United. Almost that college football loyalty, that this their team in their city and they’re going to enjoy it. Win, lose or draw it’s going to be a great party and a great atmosphere. They’re going to have fun and you’re going to be apart of that experience.”
– Darren Eales, Atlanta United FC President
As an avid baseball fan and somebody who never imagined the day he’d be writing about soccer, much less Atlanta soccer – I was dumbfounded with the energy.
Shocked into sitting back for a minute while in Bobby Dodd and talking to myself, I said “this doesn’t look like a college football stadium anymore…this doesn’t sound or look like Atlanta sports fans…”
Atlanta came together on Sunday evening for the fourth-largest soccer crowd in the world over the weekend. Who beat us out? Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona and Manchester United – teams that you know as the brand names of the sport. Who did Atlanta beat out? Liverpool vs. Arsenal (a primetime Premiere League matchup with huge implications) and Bayern Munich.
What’s next for Atlanta United?
Moving past the allure of the first game, Atlanta United has a sustainable interest. When the team blew a second half lead, it wasn’t ridiculed or discredited – instead the bond with ATLiens grew stronger. Atlanta United joined the city’s brand of first-half teams.
Going forward, the team excites in how they play. Even for the novice soccer fan, like myself, the team was fun to watch with the downfield attack and exciting players. To put it into football terms, it was like watching Spurrier’s Run & Gun offense on a soccer pitch.
The expectation is for the team to compete in the MLS and improve as the season goes on. Only one out of the last 10 expansion teams has ever made the playoffs in it’s first season. Atlanta United might be the most talented expansion team in franchise history. They entered the league with one of the most experiened and decorated coaches, “Tata” (former Argentina national team and Barcelona FC coach).
Only three of Sunday’s starters possesed MLS experience. The other teams they’ll face have played more games together than United’s handful of games. At times this team will excite and impress, and at other times it’ll get exposed and frustrate.
It’s year one. It’s okay if they aren’t championship contenders because Atlanta fans will have more patience with this team than others. Plus, this team enters Atlanta’s sports landscape at an opportune time. The Super Bowl loss has ATLiens grounded and accepting of any average winner.
We’ll take what we can get, and what we’ll get is a brand worth following in a sport worth learning.