The experience of Atlanta United playing in an empty stadium

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Imagine the vortex of noise that would have engulfed Mercedes-Benz Stadium had more than 45,000 Atlanta United supporters been there when Pity Martinez’s left-footed rocket singed Joe Willis’ fingertips as it blasted into the goal on Saturday to clinch the 2-0 win against Nashville.

There was a crowd reaction. It was loud. It was pre-taped from some past Atlanta United game in an attempt to make Saturday’s against Nashville slightly more normal.

It’s like the difference between fresh peaches and canned.

But Atlanta United was doing its best on Saturday in challenging circumstances to make a good experience for the players and positive experience for supporters watching on TV at home and unable to attend during these COVID-19 times.

“I thought it worked really good tonight,” Atlanta United interim manager Stephen Glass said. “We did it in training earlier this week, so the lads knew what was coming. It’s a great way of us feeling like the fans are there. They are a huge driving force for the whole club and for the team. To me the biggest disappointment tonight was that our fans were not able to be in the stands. When that second goal goes in, I think the roof would have come off. Hopefully, when they are allowed back in we will feel that excitement for real.”

Saturday’s experience was surreal.

There was no DJ playing music loud enough to be heard in Carrollton in the Home Depot Backyard outside the stadium before the game. There was little traffic.

Credit: Doug Roberson / AJC

Credit: Doug Roberson / AJC

The concourses surrounding the stadium were empty.

The concourses inside the stadium were empty.

Merchandise shops and restaurants ... empty.

The stadium operated at between 10-20% of its typical staff for a normal game day. Masks were mandated and worn by everyone.

Credit: Doug Roberson / AJC

Credit: Doug Roberson / AJC

Once inside the stadium, the league mandated a tiering system for anyone in the stadium. Photographers were Tier 1, field level. Reporters were Tier 3, press box. Photographers worked from the suites behind the goals. Reporters were kept at least six feet apart in the press box.

Atlanta and Nashville were put in different, larger locker rooms so that social distancing rules could be enforced. Instead of walking onto the field in side-by-side rows at midfield to start the game, the teams walked out of tunnels in the corners. Atlanta United walked in from Tunnel 1 and Nashville from Tunnel 2.

Atlanta United’s game-day operations and social media teams did well in trying to replicate a normal game day situation.

The hammering of the Golden Spike, typically done a few minutes before the game and featuring a celebrity, was pre-taped and included a community hero. It was played on the halo board and broadcast by Fox Sports Southeast. Kevin Egan, Dan Gargan and Jillian Sakovits, who hosted the broadcast, worked in the stadium and were separated by giant glass dividers, like an extreme version of the dividers used on Final Jeopardy.

The stands were empty, save for one gentlemen who must have been working the stadium. He took a seat in the stands opposite the Supporters’ Section. He was a blue dot in a sea of red seats.

Credit: Doug Roberson / AJC

Credit: Doug Roberson / AJC

Once the game started, the artificial noise played throughout, including the “A-T-L” viking clap at the 40th and 80th minutes. Martinez’s goal overshadowed the chant in the 40th minute.

There wasn’t much to cheer between Martinez’s first goal and his second in the 87th minute, the one that 92.9FM radio analyst Jason Longshore said made him yelp.

“It certainly had a strange feeling to it,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “We missed our fans tremendously. They know what they mean to us, we certainly know what they mean to us. To be in this stadium and not have that, it has never happened. So, when it has happened for the first time, it was certainly different. But, we know that they are with us from start to finish and hopefully it won’t be too long when we are able to have them back cheering us on in person.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Atlanta United coming games

Wednesday at Miami, 8 p.m. (Fox Sports South)

Aug. 29 vs. Orlando, 3:30 p.m. (Univision)

Sept. 2 vs. Miami, 7 p.m. (FS1)

Sept. 5 at Orlando, 8 p.m. (Fox)

Sept. 12 at Nashville, 8:30 p.m. (Fox Sports South)


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