Atlanta United working to improve fan experience

March 5, 2017, Atlanta: Fans unfurl the Atlanta United RC tifo to open the action against the N.Y. Red Bulls during their first game in franchise history on Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
March 5, 2017, Atlanta: Fans unfurl the Atlanta United RC tifo to open the action against the N.Y. Red Bulls during their first game in franchise history on Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

MLS Commissioner Don Garber walked into Bobby Dodd Stadium 10 minutes into Atlanta United’s inaugural game against the New York Red Bulls.

The fans were loud. The atmosphere was charged. The place was packed. It was the fourth-largest crowd for a soccer game in the world during the weekend, according to www.socceramerica.com.

“I was just speechless, and I’m not speechless very often,” Garber said at halftime. “This is just remarkable.”

The support started hours before the kickoff with fans, many sporting the team’s red-and-black primary jersey, packed elbow to elbow in the tailgating lot at The Varsity. Rap music blared as rugby played on a TV hooked up on a truck. Beer flowed as freely as hugs as traffic piled up all around the stadium.

The plaza at Bobby Dodd Stadium grew more packed the closer the game got to the start as fans made the walk down North Avenue, or through the pedestrian tunnel to Georgia Tech’s campus.

The team’s supporters, more than 55,000, were the highlight of the MLS expansion team’s 2-1 loss. The northern end of the stadium, where the four supporters groups (Terminus Legion, Footie Mob, Faction and Resurgence) were located, kept the energy up throughout the game.

Combined ShapeCaption
In 2014, the Atlanta United became Major League Soccer's 22nd franchise, beginning play in 2017.

“I was expecting, to be honest, a lot less,” fullback Greg Garza said. “But they surprised us with how many people were on board the whole entire game. It was hard to talk to your teammates on the field. That’s how loud it was.”

Garza then made a comparison that should make Atlanta United’s supporters proud, and give them a challenge for future games:

“Maybe one of the other games I’ve played where it’s that loud was with the U.S. national team against Mexico at the Alamo Dome,” he said.

The supporters were recharged often because most of the action came at their end. It started with the ceremonial pounding of the golden spike, a tradition that the team is starting to honor the city’s past. Then, all three of the game’s goals came at the end of the stadium. The first was scored Atlanta United’s Yamil Asad, the second by New York Red Bulls’ Daniel Royer and the third an own-goal by Anton Walkes.

But not all of the behavior, or experiences, were as positive.

Fans complained of lines as long as 20 minutes to get into the stadium, and as long as an hour to purchase a beer near the 222 section. One fan said, after missing the first goal because of the long line, that those waiting started a new chant, “Hell of an engineer, but can’t pour a beer.”

Another supporter, also in section 222, said there were fights at the nearest concession line because of people trying to cut into line. He said a lack of ushers didn’t help.

Lastly, some supporters threw items onto the field, an action that technical director Carlos Bocanegra called unacceptable.

The team said it will work to improve the experience for the next game.

“The atmosphere was incredible at the first Atlanta United match in club history, and we continue to be grateful for the level of support we have received from our fans,” club President Darren Eales. “With a sellout crowd for our inaugural match, and with the unique layout and footprint of Bobby Dodd stadium, challenges naturally arose for our fans that we are making every effort to address immediately. We are working together with our partners at Georgia Tech to improve and optimize the fan experience for our next home match on March 18.”

The largest soccer crowds in the world last weekend, according to socceramerica.com:


ATT. MATCH (COUNTRY)

1. 79,100 Borussia Dortmund-Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)

2. 77,117 Barcelona-Celta Vigo (Spain)

3. 75,245 Manchester United-Bournemouth (England) 

4. 55,297 Atlanta United-NY Red Bulls (MLS)

5. 54,014 Borussia Moenchengladbach-Schalke 04 (Germany)

6. 53,146 Liverpool-Arsenal (England)

7. 51,500 Eintracht Frankfurt-Freiburg (Germany)

8. 50,000 FC Cologne-Bayern Munich (Germany)

Here’s how to read the AJC’s coverage of Atlanta United:

Web: On the Atlanta United channel on AJC.com.

Facebook: On our Facebook page at Atlanta United News Now.

Twitter: Follow Doug Roberson on twitter @DougRobersonAJC.