Saturday night, another rather late-life venture, Atlanta United, plays for MLS’ championship in just its second season of existence. Owner Arthur Blank, the man who co-founded Home Depot, built a window onto the global culture of soccer and challenged this southern city’s tastes in what makes for great sport. (Video by Ryon Horne/AJC, Steve Hummer/AJC)
Brandon Schecter paints Atlanta United-inspired banners, sets up flags for games and recently helped place pieces of foil in team colors of black, red, and gold on every seat in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a shimmering, crowd-driven display of support.
He’s part of an Atlanta United supporter group called “Footie Mob,” which tailgates before games and helps create elaborate displays in the stands for the city’s wildly popular two-year-old soccer team. He’s just one of the thousands whose loud support for the young team have set a new standard for Atlanta fans in advance of Saturday’s title match for the MLS Cup 2018.
Today before kickoff, Schecter will join other ravenous fans who will march their way into the Mercedes-Benz Stadium accompanied by drums and horns, singing "We are the A. From way down South. And we are here, rowdy and proud, Sha la la la Sha la la la."
A season ticket holder, Schecter travels to away games – from Houston to Philadelphia and Montreal to New York and Denver. The 38-year-old attorney even learned a little Spanish to help him perfect Latino-inspired chants like "Vamos. Vamos Atlanta. Esta noche tenemos que Ganar,” or “Let’s go. Let’s go Atlanta. Tonight we have to win.”
Schecter is all-in. But his enthusiasm is surprising and unexpected, even for Schecter. He grew up in Nashville, and when he moved to Atlanta about 12 years ago, he already had his sports teams. He was a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan. He also loved the game of soccer but had developed an allegiance to the German National Soccer Team as a child.
When he first heard about Atlanta starting a new MLS soccer team, his interest was tepid at best. He had never even watched a complete MLS game before. But at the first home game at Bobby Dodd Stadium just last year, Schecter was surrounded by passionate fans and constant energy — cheering, chanting, waving flags. Vociferous chants of ‘A-T-L’ ‘A-T-L’ reverberated from the stands. The soccer team wasn’t just good, but really good. Schecter was instantly hooked.
“Suddenly this team gave everyone an opportunity to come together – from transplants to immigrants, to life-long Atlanta residents, suddenly we have this team for everyone,” said Schecter.
Only in its second season, Atlanta United has the chance to win the first major professional sports title for Atlanta since the Atlanta Braves won the championship in 1995.
With record-breaking attendance throughout the season, Atlanta United can count on a crowd of over 70,000 fervent fans in the glorious, state-of-the art Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Coached by Argentine Gerardo "Tata" Martino, the team features Josef Martinez of Venezuela and Paraguay's Miguel Almiron who have lit up the league with goals and assists. Martinez was named Major League Soccer's Landon Donovan MVP for the 2018 season on Wednesday. Almiron finished second in the voting.
Team owner Arthur Blank has flexed his muscles financially and creatively to launch a successful team.
Atlanta sports fans have a reputation for showing up late and thinking in the back of their mind their team won’t win a championship. But fans like Schecter call Atlanta United part of a new Atlanta — one that is bold, confident and innovative.
In March, Atlanta United fans unfurled banners before the game shaped like tombstones, reading “R.I.P. BAD SPORTS TOWN.”
Forget showing up late. Fans like Schecter show up days, even weeks before games. Volunteers from supporter groups rent space in warehouses to work on enormous “tifos” — an Italian word for choreographed displays of fan support.
The recent tifo involving foil — specially ordered from Germany — on every seat was a full-stadium mosaic designed by members of the Resurgence supporter group and required weeks of planning. Schecter and volunteers from other supporter groups helped set it up.
“We had some concerns in the weeks leading up to it and making sure people were actually in their seats and ready to go, and on time,” said Ben Reed, part of the leadership team for Resurgence, a supporter group known for being rowdy, raucous and anti-authority.
Just after the singing of the National Anthem, the striking tifo was revealed — pieces of foil spelling out “ATL” in one section of the stadium, “Vamos” across the way, and surrounded by five black and red strips along the sidelines.
“There was a little relief that it looked great, and excitement that we have over 70,000 people here for a soccer game and they are really into it,” said Reed of Atlanta.
In 2014, Curtis Jenkins and his friend Stefan Kallweit, excited about the just-announced Atlanta United FC, joked on Facebook about creating a supporters’ group and naming it Footie Mob, a play off of the Atlanta hip hop group Goodie Mob which formed in the early 1990s. Within a year, they moved forward with the plan, founding what is one of four main supporter groups known for mixing music, food, beer, and soccer culture — all with Atlanta connections. They have music-inspired chants from Atlanta artists including R.E.M and the B-52s. A staple is “We Ready,” which is from an Archie Eversole song and likely familiar to Falcons fans.
The Footie Mob has about 1,500 members who pay $25 to $65 for annual dues and get discounts to food at tailgates and members also receive special fan merch including a scarf that says “Bless Your Heart.”
Jenkins, a 39-year-old Atlanta native who is a fire marshal, has long been a fan of Atlanta sports teams with strong memories from the 90s era of the Atlanta Braves, the 80s with Dominque Wilkins on the Atlanta Hawks, and the ups and downs of the Atlanta Falcons.
“I am a Falcons fan and the accountant is a New Orleans Saints fan, and another colleague is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan,” said Jenkins. “But now, everyone has found this one team.”
Meanwhile Ashley Robinson, a 35-year-old stock broker who lives in Decatur, is a passionate Falcons fan (she has a Falcons tattoo on her right wrist). The timing of the start of Atlanta United was perfect, only months after the crushing Super Bowl loss. It was the kind of loss that can bring a city down for a very long time.
“The city was deflated, and I was eager to be part of something new from the ground up,” she said. “I used to say Falcons was the marriage and Atlanta United was a side thing. But it’s become neck and neck.”
And then there’s Gary Paterson who lives in a small village called Urchfont near Stonehenge in the southwest of England. He lived in Atlanta from March 2015 to September 2017 – just long enough to form a lasting bond with Atlanta United, the team, as well as its fans. Since leaving Atlanta, he’s flown back for the first playoff game against New York City. And he’s flying back for Saturday’s game, his fare covered by Atlanta United President Darren Eales who was impressed by Paterson’s loyalty.
Today, Atlanta United’s ardent fans near and far are bursting with pride and excitement.
“For the city, this is the championship we have been missing,” said Jenkins. “What I love about the players is they will go 100 miles an hour to the final whistle. This is what we need, to leave everything they possibly have on the field.”
And the players know they’ve got fans who will also give everything they’ve got.