Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 26, 2018.
There in the shade of a Falcons canopy tent on a hot weekend afternoon was the very image of a sporting transfiguration in Atlanta.
The shelter said football – and lord knows, this part of the country is keen on its slobber-knocking. But the scene suggested something else. Good grief, there wasn’t a single gray hair in the group, each of them surely versed in the very latest app.
“The Atlanta United crowd scales younger and so does our tailgate,” Atlanta’s Tara Sconzo said.
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Beneath a very football ceiling was a very soccer gathering. And as in a revivalist’s tent, those in attendance possessed a great zeal for what was about to happen.
While Sconzo orders from both sides of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium menu, viewing both of Arthur Blank’s teams, she has been caught up in the new energy of his soccer holding, Atlanta United. Think geo-thermal, while football is coal.
“On top of us just giving it a try and enjoying soccer and enjoying the stadium – they started doing well and they were exciting,” said Sconzo of her experience. “The crowd’s on its feet the whole time – people who knew the soccer culture brought that in. A lot of my Falcons friends come in and say why aren’t Falcons games like this? Why aren’t people on their feet? Why aren’t they engaging the whole game versus being on the club level watching on a million TVs and eating food?”
Welcome to the new definition of what makes Atlanta a distinct sports town. For all those tired questions about this city’s capacity to rally behind its professional franchises, the heretofore foreign pursuit of kicking a ball into a net has provided a most surprising answer.
MLS entrusted its All-Star game – its best versus various Juventus (Italy) visitors not named Ronaldo – to a franchise that has not even finished its second season. And some could even say the MLS is a little late getting to the phenomenon.
You may remember, although the traces are faint, that Atlanta once staged a Summer Olympics. Well here, repackaged in a far more modest container, comes another event that advances the city’s international agenda.
“It gives the city global exposure,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “It’s a game televised to 170 countries around the world. It’s generally our highest rating of the year in this country. It really is our biggest event of the year outside our championship game.”
The hardy embrace between Atlanta and its MLS team is evidenced by regular new attendance records and Atlanta United’s league-best record, despite its youth. Count an ESPN broadcaster as one of the many who believed that soccer would have very difficult time winning the hearts and minds of the Atlanta audience.
“I’ll fully admit how wrong I was,” said Taylor Twellman, who had pushed out a doubtful tweet soon after Atlanta was awarded a MLS team.
Twellman operated under the old belief that Atlanta was a tepid, fickle sports city. He lumped soccer into the same category of niche sport as one that already had failed here twice – hockey. He knew the football they played in the American South was nothing like the football they play in Manchester. “I thought it was a 50-50 decision,” he said. “When I said that, I got texts and emails from some people in the MLS world saying, listen, I agree with you.”
Don’t blame Twellman too much. He wasn’t alone.
Said the commissioner, “Many of us in the sports industry had scratched our heads, thinking that (Atlanta) is a young, vibrant city with lots of corporate connections, lot of people deeply embedded in the community. And you wondered why it didn’t shout out as one of America’s top sports markets. And as such, we had skepticism.”
In looking back on how Atlanta United overcame the doubt, and more than that how it has managed in a very short time to become the model for what is possible for soccer in America, it’s never a bad idea to begin by buttering up the boss.
If soccer was important enough to Blank, it was going to be important to Atlanta. That much was immediately apparent to the franchise’s first big hire, team president Darren Eales. Eales was the Brit pried free from his position with Tottenham Hotspur of the Premier League in 2014. His first meeting with Blank included the heads of all his other interests, including the Falcons. “It showed this was an important position to him,” Eales remembered.
“I knew this was going to be something that he was going to put his resources toward – not just financial but in terms of his emotional focus,” he said.
That view’s the same from outside the corporate office.
“They went out and treated it on an equal level with the Falcons,” Twellman said. “The way the Blank family did it, they made a statement right away – we’re not just playing in the Falcons stadium, this is a soccer stadium, too.”
Years in advance of the first game, they began putting pieces in place. By the spring of 2015, in came former U.S. National Team player Carlos Bocanegra to serve as technical director (general manager). A year later, the team broke ground on a lavish training facility in Marietta. Atlanta United birthed a developmental team. Then, in the fall of ‘16 came a most important hiring.
Matt Stigall had been beating the drum for soccer in Atlanta from the time the city got the MLS franchise, helping to found the first of several loud, colorful supporter groups, Terminus Legion. “I remember everything was great about the team,” he said, “but when it was announced that Tata Martino was the head coach, that’s when my jaw dropped. Oh, man, we meant business. That was the first time I thought this was going to be something special.”
Having coached the national teams of Argentina and Paraguay, as well as the prestigious FC Barcelona, Gerardo “Tata” Martino lent instant credibility to a start-up MLS team. “At the time, the perceived wisdom was that foreign coaches don’t work in the MLS,” Eales said. Importing a high-profile face of the franchise who didn’t speak English was also a bit of a twist.
Breaking the mold of how one is supposed to sell soccer in the U.S. became common practice for Atlanta United. That was true, too, once it was time to bring in the players who would implement Martino’s high-paced, pressing, offensive-minded style of play. Rather than sign aged overseas players with a measure of name recognition over here – a normal MLS tactic – the Atlanta United group committed to young players with ambitions of developing and moving on to higher leagues in Europe.
Players in soccer are commodities, and here was United investing in young players – with a distinctly South American bent – with the design of one day not trading them but rather selling them to, say, a Premier League team. And just keep the pipeline flowing. “My view was that we could take players at a younger age and almost create stars,” Eales said.
Thus, the top-selling jersey in all of MLS last season was that of Atlanta United’s dynamic 24-year-old midfielder Miguel Almiron. No. 3 on the list was Atlanta United’s 25-year-old forward Josef Martinez, leading the MLS in goals this season. Both are among the five Atlanta United players on Wednesday’s All-Star roster.
Said super fan Stigall, “The ownership and front office have done almost everything right. Getting a world-class coach and getting some world-class players – it’s like they’re playing chess and everyone else in MLS is playing checkers.
“I had to keep telling people this was going to be different,” Stigall said. “The ownership. The stadium downtown. The young, diverse people of the city - it really was going to be a perfect combination. It was going to shock people. And to be honest, it shocked me as to how far it exceeded my expectations.”
It all sounds so simple when Atlanta United midfielder Chris McCann says it: “They’ve built the right club at the right time in the right place with the right people.”
Borrowing a little from southern football tradition – the pre-game tailgating and the Dawg Walk-like parade of players into the stadium – and mixing in such soccer traditions as in-game chanting, the fans have made themselves an integral part of the experience. United tapped into a youthful, diverse fan base hungry to identify with what is, like many of them, a newcomer.
Eales would equate the Atlanta United game-day energy to anything he experienced abroad. As far as making soccer as culturally relevant in Atlanta as it is over there, of course he’ll admit, it’s not that.
He’s quick to point out that this team, ultimately, has not given the fans what they want. “Look, we haven’t won anything yet,” he said. United was bounced in its opening playoff round last year.
“It was great last year. We’re playing attractive football (that’s European for soccer). We’re halfway through the season top of the table (European for standings). But ultimately it’s about winning trophies and championships. And we’ve not done that yet. We’ve got a long way to go.”
And then, from there, who knows? First Atlanta. Then MLS. Then the world. There is no containing the ambitions of this city’s soccer team.
“My vision and Arthur’s vision for the club is to compete globally,” Eales said. “So, it’s great we’re doing well in MLS, but that will never be enough for us.
“We are part of the global landscape and we will always be striving to have the end goal of being one of those big clubs in the world.”