Atlanta United fans share unspoken bond, love of the flag

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan and captain Michael Parkhurst practice kicking the ball into goals for a contest for employees and customers invited to a Delta-hosted event at the Mercedes-Benz stadium.

As you approach the long exit escalator at the Georgia Dome MARTA station on an Atlanta United game night, you’ll hear “A-T-L!” echo from a sea of black-and-red-wearing fans. The chant has become a signature of the fans of the MLS soccer team since the first game in March 2017.

Leaving the platform, you’ll share the escalator with a melting pot of college students, young millennial parents escorting toddlers and their own parents, and even a few fans over 60.

Compared to the appeal of the Braves, Falcons and Hawks, Atlanta historically has had a tepid reception toward soccer. The Doraville-based Atlanta Silverbacks, part of a lower-tier soccer league, were the closest to a local team that city has had.

Atlanta United fans, including (from left) Jim Herald, James D. Dixon III and Tony Broughton, gather at Brewhouse in Little Five Points. (Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography)

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But the excitement surrounding Atlanta United reflects a long bottled up want for a local major league team, said supporter Scott Toney.

Toney became a fan of the sport while watching European soccer championships and supported the DC United team until Atlanta United came into the picture. When rumors started that Atlanta would get its own MLS soccer team, he started following the news so he would have first pick when the founding season passes went on sale.

His wife, Keri, was initially skeptical as she grew up an Alabama football fan. But once she began attending Atlanta United games, she found the energy irresistible.

“I was afraid I was going to get burned out since we have season tickets, but I get so excited now if there’s a match,” said Keri. “All of our friends come out now when we tailgate in the Gulch and cook out. Then we do the big march into the stadium with the drums and chanting.”

Toney follows midfielder and Paraguayan-born Miguel Almiron along with Venezuelan Josef Martínez, currently a striker for the team and the lead scorer in the league as of this writing.

Justin Sanderfer, who attends games with his wife, Laura, also got on board early. “Once I realized that this thing was happening, I knew I wanted in,” Justin said. “There will never be another chance to be a supporter of a team from the beginning, from the ground up.”

Sanderfer is a proud owner of black and red Atlanta United flag emblazoned with “founding member” hanging outside their home — just as many other homes, restaurants and establishments show the colors to support the team. Bars declaring themselves “Atlanta United Official Supporters” include the West End’s Lean Draft House, Brewhouse Cafe in Little Five Points and Midway in the East Atlanta Village.

One of those founding member five-stripe flags belongs to married couple Johanna DeCotis Smith and Cole Smith, whose love of soccer runs back to their childhoods. Johanna used to play soccer as a kid and renewed her interest when she lived in South America in her early 20s. Cole used it as a way to connect to people in new cities while growing up as a U.S. military brat. Now they bring their 10-month-old baby, Decio, often dressed in an Atlanta United onesie, to home games.

To immerse themselves on this newly minted sports community, Johanna and Cole joined Terminus Legion, the self-proclaimed largest Atlanta United supporters group in the city. With more than 500 active members on Facebook, the group organizes tailgating, giveaways, watch parties and even soccer games between members.

“Supporters groups are great for being able to find your community even when the team isn’t in town,” DeCotis Smith said.

Owned and operated by Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, the Atlanta United FC team was announced by the MLS League in 2014, with its first season kicking off at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium in March of 2017. From the outset, the fans were encouraged to vote online for major decisions, from the color scheme to the team’s name.

That dedication could be felt during their second season opener this past March, when the team broke the league’s single-match attendance record by hitting the 72,000 attendees mark for the third time, according to MLS reports.

"Last Maymarked one year from our first game at Bobby Dodd," said Jennifer Donlon, who moved to Atlanta in 2016 and attends soccer games with her wife, Heather Price. "I remember getting goosebumps when everyone joined in the 'A-T-L' chant and how much unity already existed within the crowd."

After a year at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta United fans were ready to occupy the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and start traditions of their own. In a nod to the city’s railroad history, the Golden Spike is signed before each game by the players and supporters, then hammered into a platform as a good luck ritual.

“Everyone had gone six months without a game, and it was like a huge family reunion,” said Laura Sanderfer. “The energy was incredible; 72,000 people releasing six months of pent-up excitement made the stadium alive.”

Sanderfer reveals how they tailgate in the Gulch, an undeveloped area near the stadium, where old railroad lines go through. “Everyone does it differently, but we drive down a few hours early and arrive about 30 minutes before tailgate starts. We park in the Gulch, open the back of the SUV and set up our tent and camping chairs and table with drinks, snacks, and sometimes, Jell-O shots. We normally walk back and forth between our car and the Terminus area to see our friends and catch up.”

“When you see someone with a shirt or a car magnet or a hat on that’s Atlanta United, there’s this silent pride and camaraderie that swells up. You’re passing ‘your people,’” Donlon said. “You don’t know these people, they may be nothing like you, but there’s this understanding and respect and bond that’s there. It sounds crazy, but any United fan reading this will agree that they show a little smile when they see the five stripes across town.”

Insider tips:

Don’t have a season pass? Keep an eye on the Atlanta United site for affordable, single-game tickets (ranging from $25-$40) for home games. The last home game of 2018 is Oct. 21 against the Chicago Fire.

Know that Mercedes-Benz stadium does not allow bags that are not clear, so purchase a clear bag before attending a game and skip the check-in line.