Emphatic chants of “A-T-L, A-T-L” reverberated from the stands. Dozens of banners waved. Drummers, several shirtless, pounded their percussion instruments. And ecstatic fans jumped to their feet as the big game geared up.
In only its second season, Atlanta United was competing for the first major professional sports title for Atlanta since the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995.
The fans included Tomas Larasosa of Calhoun. He wore a shiny red cape, along with a red mask (with an Atlanta United patch) and red, gold and black pants his mother hand-stitched for him.
“I’m so happy,” said Larasosa. “I love the sport. I love this team, and I love how this brings people together.”
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Larasosa arrived almost 12 hours before the game Saturday. He waited out the rain under a nearby bridge. He got in line as early as he could to secure a good spot in the loud, boisterous supporter section. The hometown support was evident with the sea of red in the stands with only specks of green (with only a few thousand, at most, Portland Timbers fans in attendance).
Other fans included Robert Angus, with strategically placed red and and black ornaments (in five stripes, of course) dangling in his long white beard. Angus said he started going to games initially because his son was a soccer fan, but now, he said, “I’m even more into it than he is.”
The 48-year-old Roswell resident has only missed two Atlanta United home games since the team’s inception, he said.
“I’ve been to see the Falcons and the Braves, but (United) has a lot more action. It’s nonstop. In a football game you’ll have 12 minutes of action over 60 minutes of play. Here it’s 45 minutes of go.”
Meanwhile, Gustavo Reyes, 50, and his daughter Ashley, 13, were overjoyed to see this young team make it to the finals. Carrying large foam “GOOOAL” signs and two small Venezuelan flags, Reyes and Ashley loved watching for World Cup soccer games, and rooted for Venezuela, but they were thrilled to now have an Atlanta soccer team.
“It felt good to have a soccer team where we live, where you can go support them,” said Ashley of the Northlake area. “We are Venezuelan so we love Josef Martinez. … We’re always cheering and screaming really loud.”
The celebrations started early with Atlanta United’s fan base not deterred by constant rain and cold temperatures during the pregame hours Saturday afternoon.
The tailgate crowd was assembled under a sea of tents at the Gulch as they kept warm huddled around portable heaters, grills and even a giant smoker preparing a whole hog.
Kyle Yessa and Jeremy Barrow were among the first to arrive — as usual. They pulled into the Gulch parking lot next to Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 8 a.m. to claim their favorite spot under the bridge. That was prime real estate because the bridge helped block the rain.
They set up their elaborate tent structure — equipped with a fire pit and decorated with signs and soccer scarves — to count down the hours before the battle for the MLS Cup 2018.
Yessa, who is from Nashville, Tennessee, and Barrow, an Atlantan, didn’t even know each other before Atlanta United. They met vying for a tailgating spot when the soccer team had just arrived in Atlanta and played at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Now, the two fans and their families are good friends and they have joined forces with a combined tailgate before every game.
Like many of the hardcore fans who gathered on Saturday, these United fanatics said the soccer team had actually enriched their lives with new friends and a new sports obsession that has yet to let them down.
“I have more friends here in Atlanta than I do in Nashville,” Yessa said.
The weather didn’t even phase this tailgate crew — their setup was warm and dry, and they welcomed their tailgate neighbors in like family as they prepared for Atlanta to claim the championship.
At the Faction’s tailgate, Jon Jaffin was tending to a whole hog that he had been smoking all night. The family-friendly fan group brought in large tents for its pregame party. Kevin Kinley said the tents would keep everyone dry as the fans prepared for what he expected to be the biggest moment yet in United’s short but remarkable history in Atlanta.
Alek Pike is part of the Resurgence club of Atlanta United fans. He and his friends crowded under a tent as grilled cheese sandwiches were coming off the grill. Pike said the team, for him, is about home and friends who have all come together — no matter what their backgrounds — to unite around the Atlanta soccer team. “This is a place I can come and be with people who care about our city,” he said.
He said a lot of his social time is these days spent with friends from Resurgence, even during the offseason.
“From 2017 until now, this has completely changed my life,” Pike said.
— Amanda Coyne contributed to this article.