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Behind the scenes: Atlanta United’s trips to Charleston

ajc.com

Ahhh, Charleston.

A beautiful city known for its food, weddings, history, shopping, golf and … broken down buses and destroyed fields.

Wait, that’s just Atlanta United’s history with Charleston.

And that was a joke.

The city actually has played an important part in Atlanta United’s history. Yes, it does include not one, but two buses breaking down en route. And it includes a soccer field that looked more like the remnants of a Monster Jam track.

But those facts are just one reed in a big, beautiful weaved basket.

Charleston was Atlanta United’s first partner club.

With apologies to Chattanooga, Charleston hosted its first meaningful preseason game.

And it was the quasi-site where Atlanta United’s run to the U.S. Open Cup started.

Other stories in the series

» Atlanta United's first kits
» Atlanta United's first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
» Atlanta United's first win in the snow in Minnesota

Here, as told by those who were there, is the story behind two pivotal road trips to Charleston, one in 2017 and a second in 2019. The voices include Atlanta United president Darren Eales; vice president Carlos Bocanegra; players Alec Kann, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Julian Gressel, Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst and Mikey Ambrose; and supporter J.R. Francis. Some quotes have been edited for context, clarity or length.

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Atlanta United had played one exhibition game in Chattanooga. The trip to Charleston was important because the team would face two MLS clubs, the first two it would face. It could provide a better gauge of quality.

Everything was looking good. All the team needed to do was bus from Flowery Branch to the airport.

Eales: Carlos and I had been there, whether to go watch preseason tournaments in years gone by … for me it's always a stadium that I fondly remember.

It was amazing though that preseason. We were organized. We were doing our training camp at the Falcons (headquarters) in Flowery Branch. It was a fantastic setup where we had the residential area for the players to stay in. It was all going really well.

Got the bus ready to go, and it wouldn’t start from the car park.

The best-laid plans.

Ambrose: The only thing I can say is the first one we were honestly about to take separate Ubers all the way there.

Gressel: We would have had to get 15-20 Ubers.

I tried to stay out of it.

Larentowicz: We were in middle of Flowery Branch, how many Ubers are there out there?

That’s not going to work.

Time passed. We are going to miss our flight.

They fixed the bus, sitting in a parking lot at QT. It was probably 45 minutes to an hour. It was really hot.

We missed the flight.

Kann: We are sitting there waiting 3-4 hours. Some guys go take a nap. They get a new bus.

Parkhurst: We end up having to drive. None of us were prepared for that with activities, movies and food. It was a bit of a nightmare.

Kann: We got into at 10 o' clock the night before the game.

Not necessarily setting up ourselves up for that preseason game.

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Things did not go well in that first game. Columbus, at the time, was a very good team. Josef Martinez opened the scoring before the Crew began to take control, eventually winning 2-1.

Ambrose: The first one was very important because it gave us the chance to see where we stacked up against actual MLS teams for the first time.

Parkhurst: We go out there and they crush us. They crushed us because at the time they were far better than us. Far more prepared. Just a better team. Better tactically.

Rodolfo was convinced we lost because of the sandwiches we had on the bus. I forget what they were. But that was the reason. Not any of those others that I just gave.

Kann: If that hadn't happened, it would have happened during the regular season at some point where we would have gotten blown off the field.

That was a wake up call for coaches and players. This is a good MLS team is, an organized team that will try to cancel out a lot of that stuff that we expect to work.

Columbus was the first team passing out of the back and pressing high in the league. It was a good match up for us

We learned a lot from that.

Gressel: Getting there late at night and playing mid-day the next day wasn’t easy.

It was just part of it. it’s part of what we go through in MLS.

Looking back, definitely had some laughs. Definitely frustrated. Definitely didn’t feel great. It is what it is.

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The players were not only learning to play together, they were learning how to play under manager Gerardo Martino. And learning how to play in MLS.

Larentowicz: Trying to figure out all the things he was trying to do.

So many things that needed to be ironed out about who goes where and when and how.

Playing that Chattanooga game we were outplayed.

Then you go and step on the field against Columbus, with continuity they had. I remember some painful video sessions after that game.

Gonzalez Pirez: The first one we take with great grace with the boys! It was a new adventure together, and we had a very good time so much did not affect us, although there at the time we got a little angry, but it was more to annoy than for anything else.

Eales: Columbus had a coach in place for a long time, a template for how they wanted to play, the way they played was the antithesis of how we wanted to play.

It was a great signal to us that if we want to be competitive, to be up there as one of the top teams, it doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it.

It’s a good example … don’t forget we were a brand new team. ... That was a good wake-up call. We may have some talented players, but we have to work at this, and it’s going to take time.

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Atlanta United would bounce back to defeat Seattle 4-2 in the next game and Charleston 2-1 in the finale of the tournament. But questions remained.

Eales: It's a wonderful city. It was a nice environment. We were still finding it difficult to get a sense of …it's really hard, even in preseason, the actual matches don't bear a resemblance to how the season goes.

Even the matches we played there, it was difficult to get a sense of how we were going to be once we got into MLS.

It was a good experience, but I remember thinking, it’s great, but we don’t get a sense of where we are until we start playing real, meaningful matches.

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Overall, the tournament was a win-win for the team.

Bocanegra: It was nice. The weather was fantastic. Being able to remember walking around the streets with the guys. Charleston always puts on a nice tournament. We were able to us there.

We had a relationship with them. Few players on loan. And even that season sent a few players on loan.

That was nice. It was a nice tournament to get us prepared. Columbus, Charleston, maybe Minnesota?

It was great. We had fantastic weather. It was really good for the guys. They had a hard preseason. Getting into that tournament we were only training once a day. Guys could walk and get coffee. Do their thing. Stayed in downtown Charleston.

A nice reward. Nice weather beach town. They could enjoy themselves and bond like that and get out on the field for a great little tournament that Charleston puts on.

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Atlanta United would go back the next year to play in the preseason tournament. It mostly was uneventful and served as a good preparation for the run to the MLS Cup. 

Then came 2019. Again, Charleston, though this time it was a different tournament. This time it was the U.S. Open Cup.

Though things ended well with Atlanta United winning the tournament, it started weirdly in 2019.

The draw for the U.S. Open Cup pitted Atlanta United against Charleston. It was the third consecutive year the teams would face each other in the tournament. Atlanta United defeated the Battery 3-2 in 2017 at Kennesaw State in 3-0 in 2018, again at Kennesaw State.

This time, though, the game was scheduled to be in Charleston.

First, Atlanta United had to get there …

Kann: That bus looked like it was straight out of the '70s.

Larentowicz: Bused there in probably what was like a designer top-of-the-line bus back when Journey was touring in the '70s.

It was blue. Almost no windows. Seats inside were luxury, but luxury 30-40 years ago.

Kann: Everyone had their own row. The seats were falling apart.

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History repeats itself.

Kann: Get halfway there to a rest stop, and it breaks down.

Larentowicz: I don't even know if we were in South Carolina yet.

I have photos from the truck stop. Everyone has smiles on their faces.

We knew stepping on that bus was going to be trouble. Little did we know that was the beginning of the trip.

Bocanegra: Not sure where Jeff gets his bus references from. We use the same bus company. Nice buses. But it broke down.

Just part of it. It builds character and have stories to tell, and they can complain to me about it. That’s usually what the process is. These things happen.

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Charleston was being battered by summer storms. Photos taken of the field the day before the game showed more mud than grass.

Eales: It was one of the few games I didn't travel to. I was speaking at a LIGA MX conference. Couldn't be farther from the rain in Cancun.

I was talking to Carlos as we went through. … I was like you, looking at the footage, surely we can’t play this.

But you never know in soccer, particularly in rain.

Francis: We had originally got an Airbnb for the weekend. We had been there since night before. Looking at weather the night previous and then getting into the car to go tailgate, the rain was going to come down and be a problem.

We tailgated in the car for a while.

The mood around the tailgate was not very positive.

The prospects of playing didn’t seem very good.

When we get in there (the stadium), you could tell all the sand they had on it. A strange thing to be there already. There were as many piles of sand as there were puddles.

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The players came out to warm up and tried to figure out how to play on a water-logged pitch.

Ambrose: We warmed up on the field, and it was honestly dangerous for us to play. We didn't care where, like we will play on a turf high school field there or wherever we just want to play.

Kann: I remember the first part of my warm-up, passing the ball side to side, and one of the first balls bounced over my leg and went behind me into the goal. We aren't building anything out of the back today.

Larentowicz: You get to the point where you drove all the way out there -- we rode in the tour bus from AC/DC in '72 -- now we need to make it happen.

I remember running in puddles, trying to dribble in puddles, trying to pass in puddles, trying to figure out how it plays.

I was the captain that night. Talking to the refs and saying, “You know, this is kind of ridiculous, but let’s get it done.”

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The field proved unplayable. The game was called before it started.

Ambrose: Imagine we had played that game like all of us wanted to and the ball didn't bounce the right way for us on that terrible field, we may not have ever won it. And God forbid, maybe someone would have gotten seriously hurt as well. So yeah, all in all it worked out pretty well.

Kann: Something could have gone really wrong if we had tried to play that game in terms of an injury or fluky goal.

Larentowicz: We got back on the bus, went back to Atlanta.

They said, games forfeited. It’s canceled. Take a break. We will back in touch.

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If only things were that easy.

Kann: Got back in middle of the night the day we were supposed to play in Charleston. Gave us the day off, the following one. That evening around 4 or 5 ... we were all assuming that Charleston had to forfeit because the field was unplayable. Free pass into the next round, we'll take it.

Then we get a call, we were playing Charleston in Kennesaw with no fans in the stadium. We are like, “Oh, gosh. Here we go.”

Larentowicz: You've got to be kidding me.

And it was an empty stadium. Home/away game in front of no fans.

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It was an odd experience. Other than media in the press box and some front-office people such as Eales milling about the stadium, it was void of fans.

The only supporters were a small group of people in a nearby parking lot. One of them, Francis, brought a drum, an old Floor Tom. His friend set up a projector so that they would watch the game.

Francis: When they said it would be in Kennesaw, perfect.

When they said it would be behind closed doors to maintain home-field advantage, I said we will see about that.

Abby set out her projector.

I set up my drum.

I banged the drum hoping the guys could hear it.

Hopefully the guys heard that and knew they were being supported.

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The game started. It proved tougher than Atlanta United expected.

Eales: It was interesting then to go to the game behind closed doors, given one of the discussions going around the world (today) is the possibility of playing behind closed doors.

It was a strange experience playing at KSU.

Couple of things I remember. Let me be diplomatic, I thought there were some questionable decisions made by the referee.

I remember voicing my concerns to the referee. The problem was there was no one in the stadium. Elena (Cizmaric, the team’s communications director) began texting me going, we can all hear you in the press box.

I realized as president I better sort of tamper down my comments.

You could hear everything being said by the players.

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Charleston took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Ian Svetesson in the 20th minute. Atlanta United pushed and pushed for an equalizer. 

Eales: I'm superstitious. I remember when they were 1-nil up and we were struggling to get an equalizer, I was moving to different spots around the stadium to try to find a lucky spot.

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With Eales standing near the press box against the railing, Romario Williams scored the tying goal in the 79th minute.

Eales: I feel I did my bit getting that equalizer.

We had six fans over on the grass outside the stadium. They had set up a TV and were on a 20-second delay. When we got the equalizer, 20 seconds later suddenly there’s drumming and cheering.

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The game advanced to extra time. Two goals from Brandon Vazquez, one in the 110th minute and the other in 121st minute, secured a 3-1 win. But there was drama. A potential equalizing goal by Charleston in the 117th minute was called back for offside. In the 119th minute, the Battery hit the crossbar.

Atlanta United would go on to defeat Columbus 3-2, Saint Louis 2-0, Orlando 2-0 and Minnesota 2-1 in the championship game.

But it started with that odd non-game in Charleston.

Eales: It was a huge game for us. We had to find a way to win. It wasn't pretty, but the rest was history because it ended up giving us our first U.S. Open Cup and another trophy for the cabinet. It was important.

August 27, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United players hoist the Lamar Hunt Trophy after defeating Minnesota United 2-1 to win the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday, August 27, 2019, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
August 27, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United players hoist the Lamar Hunt Trophy after defeating Minnesota United 2-1 to win the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday, August 27, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com