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Here, as told by Atlanta United president Darren Eales, vice presidents Carlos Bocanegra and Catie Griggs, MLS vice president Dan Courtemanche, players Michael Parkhurst, Mikey Ambrose, Alec Kann, Alexander Tambakis, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Julian Gressel, New York Red Bulls player Daniel Royer and 92.9 FM analyst Jason Longshore is the story of Atlanta United’s inaugural game, one described as magical and that for some ended with a unique hug and for another memories of London and Madrid.
With Mercedes-Benz Stadium not scheduled to be completed until sometime during the summer of 2017, Atlanta United was forced to find a new home. Among several boxes that needed to be checked: the field dimensions needed to meet FIFA’s requirements, there could be no visible football lines on the pitch because owner Arthur Blank made that promise to the team’s supporters when the franchise was granted in April, 2014, it needed to seat at least 30,000 people, and it needed to be somewhere close to metro Atlanta. Really, there was just one choice: Bobby Dodd Stadium, which needed a few minor modifications to fit a soccer pitch. The announcement was made in October 2016. The MLS expansion side paid rent of $45,000 per match, $275,000 for locker-room accommodations and $350,000 to make changes to the field once the final soccer game is played.
Eales: It was difficult because if you think about the level of fans that we had because we already had season-ticket holders that were 30,000-plus, so that really limited the venues that we could go to.
We were fortunate, really, that Georgia Tech were great partners for us. They knew as well that they were the only option we had. They could have been quite awkward about it, but they were far from that. They were great to work with and really good partners.
Upon reflection, clearly it was fantastic for Atlanta United as a temporary venue before we got to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
I think it was also good for Georgia Tech. You are almost seeing a little bit of the fruits of that now with their new football coach. They saw a way that Atlanta United was connecting to the fans that brought an energy that they could perhaps use some of those tools and techniques to promote Georgia Tech as a place to go for sports.
From my perspective, as someone coming from outside the country, I had no idea that Georgia Tech was in Atlanta. I think sometimes they miss a trick as branding Georgia Tech the university as being, particularly with their sports teams, in the heart of such a wonderful city.
We had the season-ticket holders and wanted to have the ability to have bigger crowds. We felt like we were going to have a big walk-up for that first game and then were hoping to carry that on afterward. It was the obvious choice. Great praise to Georgia Tech and everyone we worked with there. Right from the president at the very top, it wasn’t a case of they had us over a barrel, how could they make the most out of it. They did extra in this partnership, which was really helpful for both parties.
Part of that work involved starting game-day rituals that the team still uses, though at the time no one was sure if they were going to work.
Eales: We knew there were some things we would be trying out that might work, might not. When we talked about Bobby Dodd being Project Lemonade, which I spoke about with you before: It's not ideal that we aren't able to move into our stadium, but let's try to take it as a positive.
One of the things we had spoken about was using it like you might do with software as a beta test. Look, if they didn’t work, we didn’t have to carry them over to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. If they did work, we could carry them over to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
We had an idea of having an arrival where we could have fans, almost a nod to college football. They do it a little bit in Europe when you arrive to the stadium and the fans begin to congregate. Let’s make a moment of that. We came up with the idea of dropping the bus off at the corner and the players would walk through. We weren’t sure if people would turn up or not.
That first game, it was incredible. Even the players were blown away. We’d been talking to the players about some of the things we were going to do. The players were a little bit skeptical, not sure if it was going to happen or going to work. Right from when the bus arrived it was incredible. It was 10-deep of people waiting to see the players. Straight away the players realized, “Wow, this is going to be something special, the fan base in Atlanta.”
Parkhurst: I think the walk into Bobby Dodd was pretty natural because we took a bus into the stadium, walked into the stadium through the crowd. That was our first taste as a team what kind of atmosphere, what kind of support we were in for that night as a team. It was packed on both sides of the street. It was loud. We could feel the energy as soon as we got off the bus, which was amazing.
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I think it was a smart idea to incorporate the walk. It gives us a chance to interact with fans a little bit, gets them excited about the game, give them high-fives, take a picture here and there, make a kid’s day. It’s unique and well thought of, and the players have bought into it. We enjoy it as well, now.
Kann: We were all very surprised. We had a taste of it in Chattanooga. That was when I was like, "This is the real deal." They aren't messing around. That stadium was completely full. When we got to the stadium (in Chattanooga) there was a crowd of a couple hundred people making a tunnel for us.
We had that in the back of our minds. If this is a road game, God only knows what they are going to do when we play at home.
It was amazing how early they got to the stadium and set up. They were already many beers deep when we showed up. That was two hours before the game.
It was amazing.
A lot of us were in a bit of shock up until the game started. With all the emotion and build-up that came with the game and started the franchise.
Royer: First of all, when we arrived at the stadium, we could feel the energy of the fans right away and the atmosphere was unbelievable. Their first game in franchise history, it was packed, the acoustics and fans were really loud and really into it. It was great to see another club coming into MLS with a great fan base. We didn’t know what to expect with a new team, so there was a lot of excitement.
Longshore: What I remember most about that first match was the noise. It was so incredibly loud. We kept having to experiment with the audio levels so you could actually hear us talking about the match.
Much like the arrangement between the Falcons and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in which one team’s logos and signage aren’t readily visible when the other is hosting a game, Atlanta United began planning on how to turn Bobby Dodd Stadium from the home of the Yellow Jackets into the home of the Five Stripes, a nickname that had yet to become ingrained.
Eales: This is an interesting one. A couple of things: Georgia Tech was great. We had a lot of discussions with them. For us, this is our first game. We have to make it our home. Georgia Tech was great. We are black and red, as well.
Let us do this, but we promise we will take it down so that you don’t have red and black for recruits coming in.
But I go back to Arthur. It all starts with Arthur. He’s someone who totally understood that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. He’d been through it with Home Depot, the idea of costs in opening up shops, making a big splash when a Home Depot opened or PGA Superstore now. There will be store-opening costs that you will have.
There’s a mindset that it’s a temporary stadium for 7-8 games, why would you go to any expense to dress it up. But this is really important. We are Atlanta United. We are a new team. We are trying to show that we are a club that was already iconic in Atlanta. I think it’s really interesting, if you compare it to the second game in Minnesota (also an expansion team that season), they literally hung a towel above the front entrance that said Minnesota. That was literally the only branding.
It made such a difference. It really made it feel like an Atlanta United game. That was really important for us. We did spend money making it look and feel like something completely different. It’s proved to be money very well spent.
Throngs of Atlanta United supporters filled the tailgate lots near The Varsity, as well as the streets around the stadium. Most were wearing Atlanta United gear. The crowd was packed together, with spontaneous chants breaking out during breaks in the music that blasted through speakers set up around the parking lots.
Longshore: The day started early for me, with 92.9 hosting a four-hour show on air before the match kicked off from the stadium. I was on in the first segment, and I was blown away by how many people were already there that early. I ran into so many old friends and members of the soccer community.
Griggs (who hadn't yet joined Atlanta United): When I went to that first game – I had been in sports for a very long time – I had perhaps bought into the Atlanta sports-fan mentality.
“Heh, it’ll be a shiny object, but who knows what’s going to happen?”
I remember I parked near the Fox Theater for the first match and had to walk over. I was walking through The Varsity and all the tailgates happening there and gradually making my way to Bobby Dodd.
I remember thinking I feel like a huge fool because I was the only person not wearing Atlanta United gear.
It was impactful. My brain was like, “Where did they get the stuff? They haven’t even played a game yet.”
I came to regret not having bought a jersey very quickly.
Bocanegra: There's that window on the far side of the stadium that shows one of the streets. It's opposite of the press box-side. There are suites, and you can see a little bit of the street. I remember going over there. You had heard about all the fans congregating in the streets and marching. I went over to take a peek and get some photos of that.
Trying to take that all in.
Going into the locker room before the game and saying good luck to the guys. Everybody was really excited to go and be playing. Then went out on the field and did pretty well.
Eales: When Arthur arrived, I was getting nervous because of the lines for the game because Bobby Dodd hadn't gotten used to so many fans coming in such a short space of time. There were massive lines.
But Arthur showed up, (and the crowd) rather than shouting and moaning, started chanting “Uncle Arthur.” It was a really nice moment for Arthur coming into the building.
The pregame included the players marching, the first tifo, which included a phoenix, and, of course, the teams marching onto the field.
Ambrose: It was probably the best MLS atmosphere I've ever seen. It was an intimate setup because the fans were so close to the field, and it just got so loud in that stadium. The fans and the music that the team played. And the field was immaculate.
Tambakis: I remember the atmosphere was crazy. I really liked that stadium as well. Everybody was so pumped. Everybody wanted to go in there and win that game. It was just something new for us. It was the first game as a team. It's a big thing for all of us. We were so happy.
Bocanegra: The sprinklers sprayed the crowd. That was pretty funny. I don't think that was thought through. We wanted to make sure the field was watered, but the stands got wet.
It was a beautiful night. Backdrop of the city. It was special.
Courtemanche: We (an MLS contingent that included commissioner Don Garber) actually arrived minutes before kickoff, as we were in Orlando for their home opener and the debut of their new stadium. I remember pulling up to the stadium, and we were all blown away by the fans and incredible turnout for the new team. For me it was extremely rewarding to see Atlanta sports fans make such a bold statement to the world with their incredible support for their new MLS club. Also, I had six family members at the game, and only one (my father) had ever attended an MLS match in person. My three sisters finally became MLS fans (or rather Atlanta United fans) … and it only took 21 years after my first day at MLS.
Gressel: Personally, it was so special for me to make my debut with my mum in the stands, but what stands out was the support we got from the fans. I mean getting off the bus and walking in to the locker room was unreal, then going out to warm up and then obviously the first goal. Those three moments stand out for me, and it is really what I believed laid the foundation for us to be so successful on the field in the years after.
Eales: I was really fortunate, my folks came over from England for the first game. It was really cool for them to see the fans. They had heard about it from a distance, but had no idea of the level of fan support we'd get.
Longshore: The night had a feeling that I had only experienced a handful of times in Atlanta soccer. The 1995 A-League playoffs for the Ruckus at Adams Stadium, the 2007 USL playoffs for the Silverbacks at their stadium, and the 2013 NASL Soccer Bowl all had a level of intensity in the crowd that is unique to a big, meaningful match. Atlanta United's first match had that feeling, too, and it was only Game 1 of 34. But it showed that the city had bought in completely that this club was a big deal. The match had an emotion that I don't think had ever been experienced in Atlanta by soccer supporters at that scale.
The game began, and Atlanta United’s players pushed as if they were playing their last game. The tempo was very fast, with the hosts breaking through in the 25th minute when Tyrone Mears hit an early cross to Yamil Asad, whose left-footed shot beat Luis Robles to the near post. It was the historic first goal in Atlanta United’s history. Another player proved pivotal in the moment.
Eales: Greg Garza, who always gave Carlos kittens (made him nervous) as a left back, you see him making the run that drags the defenders, he makes the run into the box, our left back, that takes away, I think it was Sal (Zizzo), who comes with him, and it leaves Yamil open at the back post.
It was a sign of things to come in terms of Greg Garza being one of our most forward players.
Bocanegra: We said, "All right, we scored a goal this year and we are playing. We are off to a good start."
When you watch the ball, sometimes you watch the off-the-field moments. I saw Garza was high up the field.
Not until the cross started developing, Zizzo followed Garza across the face of the goal. It eventually left Yamil open. You know the ball was coming into the box, I was watching it like everybody else.
Atlanta United missed two chances to put away the game. Robles denied Josef Martinez in the 44th minute, diving quickly low and to his right to stop a one-timer. Then, in the 67th minute, Robles saved a weak chip from Almiron, who was in one-on-one.
Eales: When that didn't go in, I thought we are going to regret this.
Sometimes you have feelings in matches. If we score that second goal, I think we comfortably win the match. Credit to them, they battled back.
The Red Bulls tied the score in the 76th minute on a bullet header by Royer from 10 yards.
Royer: I remember that we were struggling in the first half, they had all the energy and wanted to show up for the fans and remember seeing all of their quality players for the first time (Josef) Martinez, (Miguel) Almiron, (Hector) Villalba, and (Brad) Guzan made it real difficult for us early as they scored in first 25 minutes and gave us issues early. But we kept going, and after halftime we were more in control of the game and were able to create more chances. The tying goal, I remember Sacha (Kljestan) swung in a great corner kick, and I remember I was ready to score on the second post. It was great ball that I had a great jump on and was able to attack the ball. Next thing I saw was the ball in the net.
Bocanegra: It was a good header. Set pieces are one of the hardest things as a new group to get right. It's something we worked on. It was a good header.
We ran out of steam. One of the cases where we were excited. Red Bulls had a great team. They had been there for a while. They kept doing their thing and eventually broke us down.
It was a learning experience for our team.
It was a good performance. An exciting performance. Something we grew from. We can’t throw games away like that. Even if we go up, lose the lead and are drawing, that’s something to learn from.
Atlanta United gave up the final goal in the 82nd minute. It was charged to Atlanta United’s Anton Walkes as an own-goal, though there wasn’t much he could have done.
Royer: It was a great feeling to give the team an extra boost and energy to carry over for us to score the second one after that.
For one second of the atmosphere being so loud, it became so quiet the next moment, and for me that is an amazing feeling as an attacker because you want to bring something to the team and for this being the first game of the season and helping the team comeback by bringing such a large energy within the team with that goal was awesome and useful to finish out the match.
Gressel: I remember afterward that even though we lost, Tata (manager Gerardo Martino) went to every player and gave them a hug. That was kind of special because he never really did that after just regular games from there on out.
Longshore: By the time I made it back to my car, I finally had a chance to soak everything in. This was the second match I ever called on the radio and the first time in a stadium like that. I was so focused on the job at hand that I had to block out my emotions for a while. Sitting in my car in the parking deck, I had a chance to process everything. I sat there for close to an hour just thinking to all of the special things that happened that night. It was a night that established what Atlanta soccer was, what it could be, and eventually what it became.
Gonzalez Pirez: The first game was amazing! The atmosphere that was lived there very few times I have lived it in my life. There was a lot of anxiety and joy, then with the defeat, we left a little disappointed but happy to have started the dream of Atlanta United.
Atlanta United was 0-1-0, but learned lessons that are still being applied.
Eales: For me, I look back and say we never wanted to lose that game. We had been talking about the idea of the Golden Spike after the match with the players. I had explained to them why we were doing what we were doing. At the end of the game, win, lose or draw, we wanted to fans to nominate someone as the man of the match. That players would go up, collect it from the fans.
For me, it was really symbolic that you do it win, lose or draw because it’s that connection between the players and the fans that is what we are building.
We explained this to the players. I think there was a bit of skepticism from the South American players, even someone like an Anton who had played in England. We lose a game and we are going to go up and our fans are going to be happy? It’s a much more intense relationship perhaps between players and fans in other countries.
We lost the game, and Yamil went up to do the Golden Spike and was great about it. Our fans were still all there and all excited. I think it was a really good example that cemented to our players that we are all in this together, we are building a club from scratch. I was really pleased because I think we go over the hump of doing it when we lost a game in the best possible circumstance. When we lost to Columbus in the shootout, Carlos Carmona still went up and went to the fans. We cemented that relationship between the players and the fans that is part of the dynamic that has made Atlanta United successful.
For me, the atmosphere of the game was unbelievable. I thought it would take us a season for us to get that soccer culture. This was our first game. Our fans had never been to an Atlanta United game. Things like the Icelandic “A-T-L” clap in the 41st minute, things that hadn’t been prepped and no one knew was coming, I remember having goose bumps on the back of my neck for that.
The other was the “Vamos, Atlanta” chat, these things started straight away and were incredible.
I’ll always remember the adrenaline rush of the game, the post-match where we have our after-action on things that didn’t work out so we could get them right for next time, it was pretty late, but I remember walking home because I didn’t live too far away in Ansley Park. I’m walking back, it was amazing. Everyone was still out in Midtown wearing Atlanta United shirts. I felt I could have been in London, I could have been in Madrid after a Real Madrid game, but after a game where it’s still a part of the look and feel of the city, people were still shouting things as I was walking home.
That’s when I felt like Atlanta United, we were on to something really special. This wasn’t going to be a one-off, just something people could tick off to say they were there for the first game. This was something that people already cared about. It was just one match, but they were already really into it, cared about it, were talking about it in pubs and bars after the game. We’ve seen that happen, but that was an indication there and then that was something that meant something to the community of Atlanta and the surrounding area. We’ve got amazing fans that were going to take this club somewhere special.