The story of Atlanta United’s first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

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Editor's note: With the Atlanta United season on pause, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is taking a look back at some of the biggest moments in club history. Over the next several weeks, we will bring you a Behind The Scenes series in which our in-depth reporting lets you in on information never before known. Today: The first Atlanta United game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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The paint was still drying, not metaphorically but literally, when Atlanta United finally got to play its first game in  Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 10, 2017.

The team was supposed to have spent the entirety of its inaugural season in the $1.5 billion stadium but construction delays pushed the opening back on a timetable that during today’s COVID-19 lockdown seems like something worth waiting for, but then seemed like it would be the end of the world if the building didn’t open yesterday.

Instead, Atlanta United played its first nine home games at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, which turned out to be an incredible venue for soccer because of its atmosphere, the cityscape in the background and how the supporters could be right on top of the action because of the configuration of the stands.

No one knew what Mercedes-Benz Stadium was going to be like or, more importantly, feel like. And it needed to be good because there wasn’t time for rehearsals and the team was about to play seven of its next eight games in the building and needed wins.

From fire alarms going off, to corner flags possibly missing, to oncoming hurricanes, here is the story of that first game, won by Atlanta United 3-0 against Dallas, told by some of those who were there: Atlanta United President Darren Eales, Vice Presidents Carlos Bocanegra and Catie Griggs, AMB Vice President of Security Joe Coomer, TV announcer Kevin Egan, Fox sportscaster John Strong, radio analyst Jason Longshore, players Michael Parkhurst, Julian Gressel and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and supporter Vera Zeigler.

Some quotes have been edited for context, clarity or length.

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Eales: When I go back to it, I sort of was (nervous). I had a bit of trepidation. We had Bobby Dodd to start with. It was a blow that we weren't going right to Mercedes-Benz from the start. We pivoted and tried to make it as best we could. We called it "Project Lemonade," this whole idea that we had a chance to test things out.

I remember, I might have been talking to you, I said we might have made the lemonade too good. People are going to miss Bobby Dodd. How’s it going to be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium?

Arthur Blank had spent more than $1.5 billion on this new stadium. All I could think was it had better be better than Bobby Dodd or I’m going to be for the high jump.

Longshore: One of my favorite things about the opening match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium happened well before the opening whistle, or even the opening of the gates to get in the building. We did a Soccer Down Here show from The Faction's tailgate in the Gulch, and then walked through the Gulch and all of the other tailgates to the building. It felt like the first ever Atlanta soccer homecoming. I ran into former Atlanta Ruckus players, former Atlanta Silverbacks players, youth coaches and administrators, and so many others that represented different parts of the Atlanta soccer community. Atlanta soccer truly felt United on that day.

Strong: The thing that stands out to me from when we were at Mercedes-Benz for the first time, because we took a self-guided tour the day before, I was really, really impressed by -- and it set the stage for the atmosphere and the subsequent atmospheres -- was how it felt like Atlanta United's stadium. There  was a deliberate attempt to give them their own dressing room. To have that one whole side of that event level on the floor, where there were no Falcons signage. It felt like Atlanta United's stadium. When we've done games there, even with reduced capacity, it doesn't feel like a big cavernous stadium that feels half-full. It feels like a full stadium. And it's Atlanta United's stadium. That's a significant difference from other stadiums we've been in where it's an NFL team's stadium that they are sharing. That set the stage from Day One. This feels really, really different.

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One of the biggest issues for the club was the logistics of moving from one venue to the next, particularly for security. Those at the game were going to have access to players that was unlike anything at Bobby Dodd. That fell to Coomer and his team to figure out. 

Coomer: The biggest takeaway from that match on Sept. 7, we'd had the building open 14 days, less than 100 even hours, we were still trying to figure out how do you turn the lights on? How do you turn the lights off?

The amount of access to players for soccer, was probably one of the bigger challenges. For me, someone with 20 years in the NFL … “we are going to walk the players through the front gate of the building.”

“Uh, what?”

“We are going to put the locker room right across from the club.”

“OK.”

“We are going to walk the players through the club to the bench.”

“What are you talking about?”

That’s the initial jump off for a guy in my position with security and guest services and medical and police, trying to explain the amount of access that we wanted to provide.

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Security was another issue. Another was trying to make sure that the players knew what was going on. 

Coomer: And then telling the players, dressed to the nines, that you are going to come off and engage with the fans. I think a couple of players were like, "uhhhh."

A lot of them said, “No se.” That was one of the first comments I got.

To get them through that and to see what the prep and the plan had been all about and working with our supporters has been an amazing experience. They don’t come with any bad habits. They came with radical ideas of what they wanted to do and how they wanted to engage.

Bocanegra: You will find this funny. I was thinking about this last night, I can't remember who we played.

The reason why I was thinking that I cannot remember who we played, I remember going to the stadium, making sure the locker rooms were good to go, making sure the players’ families knew where to go, there were so many other things going on that I honestly, the game-game, I don’t remember a whole lot of it.

The stress level was pretty high. How’s the flow going to go, how’s the bus route going to go, how will the fans receive us, will the players remember where to park, do they know how to get to the stadium, did they remember their parking pass and if they do forget their parking pass who is on top of that?

All those logistics we were really concerned about. Do we have coffee that the players like? Holy cow this is going 100 miles per hour here and this is a massive event that we can’t mess up.

Everything at Georgia Tech was completely different than at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. We were laughing before the game, do we even have corner flags that are for turf? The stadium crew had made sure that they did order separate ones.

Little things that would be like a disaster if we didn’t have them.

Parkhurst: I remember they brought families in there to show them where seats would be and how to get around. There was a lot going on because it was such a massive stadium and everything was brand new.

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The game-day experience fell to Griggs, who was in her second or third week on her job, and facing her first game as an Atlanta United associate. 

Griggs: My level of fear and terror may have been more outsized than that of my colleagues.

I become the lead client for the stadium, to make it easy from a semantics standpoint.

“What does an Atlanta United match look and feel like? How do we ensure that it feels like we want to feel?”

A soccer experience is different than an NFL experience which is different than a concert experience.

Those decisions filter up to me.

I don’t think I had a full appreciation that was my role when I got to that first game.

I showed up 5 hours prior to that first match. But it was my first match day. Wasn’t sure how prep translated to my role.

“So what should I be doing?”

They looked at me like I had four heads.

“I want to get my hands dirty. There’s no job to small.”

“You don’t know? You are in charge.”

“That’s great. I have a lot of experience being inn charge. What am I in charge of?”

“Everything.”

Deep breaths and heart palpitations.

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One of the big differences was how the players would enter Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They would leave the locker room, walk across a concourse, through the Delta Sky360 Club, and onto the pitch at midfield. 

But….there were some things that needed to be discussed. 

Coomer: The first walk-through, when the players come through, we were just thinking it's the players, United.

“No, it’s a procession.”

“What is that?”

“We are going to bring the visiting team, the ball kids, the referees walking out, the communications guy walking backward, the ball and stand that’s coming through, we are going to put smoke all through here.”

The fire alarm definitely went off in the Delta Club that night because of the smoke machines and those filters down there set it off. We silenced it pretty quick.

It was all those little things.

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The players knew they were going to walk through the Sky360 Club Lounge. But space was an issue. 

Parkhurst: The fans were right on top of us and way too close to us. I remember just saying if the game hadn't gone well, that's a really tight area to be walking through.

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What some may not remember is Atlanta United wasn’t playing well. It had earned just three points in the previous four games. It was in sixth in the Eastern Conference. It needed victories. 

Eales: There was a little bit of pressure on us. Everyone was talking about having those home games as an advantage. They are only an advantage if you actually win them.

Parkhurst: We were sitting right in the middle of the table coming up to a really busy stretch in the season and knowing that we really needed to win these games. There was some pressure on us and we wanted to start off very well in our new home. So there was pressuring going into the game to have a good performance, to score a bunch of goals, to get the crowd into the game.

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Another concern was how would the crowd react in Mercedes-Benz Stadium? Would they stand, like they did at Bobby Dodd? Would it be as loud as at Bobby Dodd? 

Eales: There was a little bit of me that was a bit nervous. We weren't sure how the atmosphere would translate to the new stadium. I think back to that first game – we had been working really hard – building a stadium like Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we had seen it at Tottenham's stadium that had been delayed by over a year and was still incredible that they got it (Mercedes) built with some of the intricacies like the roof and the halo board and everything else.

But when we went in there, we were up against it working to get it ready for that first game, the atmosphere – our wall, the way we designed it so that our supporters would be under the window to the city – the whole idea of making that steepest section where we had the most fans.

Griggs: Most concerned about the volume of unknowns. It wasn't our first match. It was our first time putting these fans …into the stadium for the first time.

The capo stand, unlike at Bobby Dodd where it’s very easy to put a capo stand in front of a section, we had to kill some suites to do that at the fairly last minute.

You just don’t know what you don’t know.

We’ve done our best to prepare, now we have to let the humans into the building to see what happens.

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Gressel’s reaction as the players walked out onto the field: 

Gressel: Walking out onto the field for the first time with the people in the stands – the stadium looks amazing anyway without people in it – but with the fans it was so cool. It was awesome. We were all nervous. We knew how great Bobby Dodd was for us, and what an atmosphere that created for us, so we were all a bit anxious to see what Mercedes-Benz would be like. It would be great. The fans made it so much better.

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One of the things the supporters did in the pre-game after the national anthem was unveiling a tifo featuring an homage to the TV series, “Atlanta.” 

Eales: All those decisions were vindicated because the atmosphere and the brilliant tifo based on the Donald Glover show, a really brilliant visual with the window to the city, but the noise was incredible.

That for me was that moment that even before we got to the game itself and scored that first goal, that feeling of ‘Wow, this is going to be something amazing.’

Zeigler: We felt the idea captures the magnitude of the moment. It featured Josef, Miggy and Tito. My friend Alex Morrison and I worked together to create the final product with Resurgennce and the other supporter groups.

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And then the game started. It took six minutes for Atlanta United to show that it was ready to impress in its new home. Josef Martinez was hauled down by Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez in the penalty box. The referee awarded a penalty kick, but VAR recommended a second look. The penalty was waved off. 

It didn’t matter. Eight minutes later, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez stuck out a leg and deflected a header from Hector Villalba into the goal. Atlanta United led 1-0 in the 14th minute. 

Eales: It's almost like it's still going to hit the back of the net it was going so slowly. It just sort of rolled its way into the goal. If it was on grass I think it would have stopped well before the goal line. You could have had big odds in Vegas on LGP scoring the first goal at Mercedes-Benz.

Gonzalez Pirez: It was an incredible and indelible moment in my life, because we inaugurated an impressive stadium, full of happy fans as much as we are. I remember that two days before the game we trained there for the first time and we were totally amazed with such a creation. On game day we arrived at the stadium with great anxiety to debut, we were all excited about scoring the first goal there, I remember that very early we scored a penalty and there we celebrated but internally we said, Okay Josef will score the first goal, but I remember that With the VAR, it was canceled and then in a stopped ball game I had that opportunity and it was something for me that was never erased from my mind and I think that of all the fans either because it was something historical. The transition was a bit strange because we played on natural grass and changing to playing on artificial grass changed a lot but quickly with the number of games we played that month we got used to it and became very strong at home.

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 Eales was sitting in Arthur Blank’s suite for the game. It was the first time that season he had done that. As he saw the ball cross the line, he wasn’t quite ready to celebrate because of VAR. 

Eales: We had the penalty called back earlier in the game. This (VAR) was quite new, it had come in halfway through our season. IT changed the way you approached the game. My initial thought was, "Was he offside?" I wasn't sure until I saw the replay and Tito headed it that I saw he wasn't in an offside position. Even then, I couldn't get excited. I've got a TV monitor right beside me with the live feed that I can replay. I look at the replay and then I know that it was a goal and I can celebrate.

And celebrate he did.

Eales: The Leandro goal, like every goal we've scored since in Mercedes-Benz, I'm high-fiving Arthur and hugging him.

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Atlanta United dominated Dallas. Remember the capo stand? It played a part in another moment that Eales said he’ll never forget. It happened in the 41st minute when the cap signaled to the supporters to start the “A-T-L” chant. 

Eales: He (Blank) and I got the hairs on the back of our neck when we got to the 41st minute and do the "A-T-L" clap. The moment we did the clap in that stadium with everyone standing, its brand new, particularly for Arthur because I came in late on board late with the stadium but for Arthur this was something he'd been looking at for 10 years, that was a really special moment to see the energy and atmosphere in that stadium and to be proud of what Arthur had achieved in building a stadium downtown. He could have easily gone to the suburbs and taken it from the city center, but that's not what Arthur wanted. He's someone that thinks for the good of the city. To have that downtown stadium, we know can host things like Super Bowls, World Cups in the future, and be downtown, that was a real moment. That was electric atmosphere in terms of the whole stadium doing the "A-T-L" clap.

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There were two special guests on hand to watch the first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

Egan: I'll never forget my experience at the first match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, not because I was calling it, but because I was fleeing a hurricane! When 'Irma' became a life-threatening category 5, my family and friends in Miami all decided to drive to Atlanta. It took us 23 hours! A brutal experience, but the next morning Darren Eales contacted me saying he had heard of our ordeal, and asked would we like to attend the game at MBS. It was so thoughtful of the club. An unforgettable experience at the best venue on earth, and a solid win too!

Random picture of us beIN Sports on air crew all there that day! (L-R Matteo Bonetti, Eric Krakauer, Kaylyn Kyle, Terri Leigh, Kay Murray, Kevin Egan)
Random picture of us beIN Sports on air crew all there that day! (L-R Matteo Bonetti, Eric Krakauer, Kaylyn Kyle, Terri Leigh, Kay Murray, Kevin Egan)

Eales: Carlos and I knew Kevin through beIn sports when we had done interviews when Tata came on board and we'd done the circuit in Miami. We got on and I really liked some of the stuff he was doing. Like anything, we are always keeping an eye on players, coaches, broadcasters, people who you think down the line could be someone that you'd like to work with. So I had kept in touch with Keven. From my perspective, anything we could do to help out anyone in the industry we would do. But I must admit, already in my mind, I had the thought that if the time came right and we needed to move on a broadcaster in the future, Kevin was on my short list. There was a little bit of an ulterior motive.

Eales: I'm a bit of, I would say a history buff, my wife would say a hoarder, a couple of things for me. My parents came over from England. I was really excited that they could come to the first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That's something I was proud of that they could be there.

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Atlanta United scored again in the 46th goal on a goal by Martinez and again in the 68th minute on a goal by Greg Garza, which tickled Eales. 

Eales: We hit the bar twice, we created lots of chances, there was a goal-line clearance, we had the penalty five minutes in that was called back. I do think it was one of our better performances that season in terms of total domination by the other team. Capped off by what I think summed us up that season, make someone like Carlos (Bocanegra), a defender who had played left back in his time, the fact that our third goal, our furthest person forward and we are 2-nil up, looking to claim our three points, is Greg Garza. The third one, the cross comes in, Josef (Martinez) dummies it and our left back is literally a yard from the goal line to tap it in. That summed up the way that Greg Garza played his game: play both ways.

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Atlanta United finished with 18 shots, 12 on goal. Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said it was his team’s best performance that season. The enormity of the pitch was a reason. 

Eales: What strikes me is we had been looking forward so much to going to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Everything we had done around it, from the size of the pitch, was around having a team that could take advantage of the pitch. We put our team together with that in mind. Bobby Dodd was wonderful but it was a tight pitch relative to what we have at Mercedes-Benz. Though that was the first game and a sample size of one you really got a sense in that match of how dangerous we could be as a team with that extra space.

It cut a couple of ways. One, it gave us more space for players like Miguel and Tito to run into. Second, teams that tried to come and defend against us, even when you are switching sides and I think you see that a lot more as teams came, let’s go to the next season in ’18, ’19 and even the early part of this season, if you come in and defend, if you go from side to side there’s more space for them to cover. That means more running. It still plays into our hands. That first game was a microcosm of what we felt we could get from a bigger pitch and encapsulated it.

Longshore:  I remember being struck fairly early on in our radio broadcast that the additional width at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was going to be a big help to this team. With so much speed on hand, Atlanta United could spread teams out and run by them so much easier in their new home than at the more narrow Bobby Dodd Stadium. It felt like the Benz was Atlanta's turbo button because games sped up and spread out, which fit Tata Martino's preferred style of play like a glove.

Strong: Atlanta United just ripped Dallas apart. It was just before they put the 7-nil up. It had already been an impressive start. Even though it had plateaued a little bit that summer, they were coming back to life. If you listen back, on Greg Garza's goal, it was a tremendous, flowing movement up the field. You can hear on the broadcast call, even before the goal goes on, you can hear the sound of someone clapping. That's Brad Friedel (the color commentator) clapping. He would do that once a year when something really impressed him.  Stefan Frei the year before in the MLS Cup was another. His appreciation. It was a great combination of Atlanta United's play on the field but also the significance of how different this felt with an MLS team sharing a stadium with an NFL team.

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 And the crowd came through. 

Eales: We had that learned behavior. Even though we were in Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the super-comfy seats, the extra spacious leg room, everybody stood because that's what you did for Atlanta United games. That created the energy that has been a legacy of the team and why Atlanta United stands out and why our fans are known honestly throughout the world for the energy they create.

Parkhurst: I remember the crowd being electric. Really loud. Really special opening. Kick off. Anthem. The whole thing was just grand. More grad than probably anything MLS had ever seen. Our fears about them not being to replicating Bobby Dodd were put to bed because the stadium was rocking and everybody was standing. We knew it was a special place to play for sure, straight off the bat.

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There was one more moment that needed some tweaking on the fly. 

Coomer: We set a number of target dates to do rehearsals, but without the ability to get into the building you couldn't do it. We understand the concept. We understand the theory.

A lot of crowd modeling we used with moving people back and forth.

And then Elena (Cizmaric’s) like we aren’t to do postgame press conference in the Falcons’ locker room, we are going to do it in that locker room.

“Keep sticking them up, let’s go.”

We didn’t say no. We would say, “Yes, we don’t have any bananas.” But we go to yes as many times as we could to meeting these challenges. United is not the Falcons, by any stretch of the imagination. The product and the people, it’s a different fan. What they want to do and be able to do. The coaching staff and training staff. The ideologies and what they want to accomplish is completely different.

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Atlanta United learned lessons from that first game that it still uses today., partially because of surveying of attendees that it uses after every game. There is now a much wider area for the players to walk through the Delta Sky360 Club, for starters. 

Coomer: The fans learned you can be down in that club and you can see the players and they will engage you.

Those Josef over there taking a selfie with my 10 year old.

That access made that place the place to be.

Griggs: A little example of something that we changed is very early on is … we had some challenges on egress. The vast majority of our fans stay until the very end and then leave at once. It's a lot of people getting out and the stadium had been designed to allow that to be done safely. But there were some points of congestion.

We spent an awful lot of time studying video of exactly where we were running into pressure points and how to make sure fans were able to feel safe as they left the building. At the end of the day, that’s if our highest goal. We have to ensure the safety of our fans. In this environment that has never been more true.

We spent a lot of time reworking signage. We spent a lot of time talking about escalators..little things like all of the carts where you have the ketchup and mustard, we realized by the 75th or 80th minute those need to be pushed against the walls. Little things but little things you don’t necessarily think about until you see how it operates in the real world.

We learned and made changes relatively quickly. You see those things still in place today.

Bocanegra: I think it went off pretty well.

Eales: I'll be honest, first day it was let's get a win, let's make sure there are no total disasters and let's have a great atmosphere. We ticked the boxes on all three.

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