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: Atlanta United's first kits.
The five stripes.
The nickname, born of the alternating red-and-black stripes on the crest and the first primary kit, are synonymous with Atlanta United.
But that wasn’t the goal. It was an organic byproduct.
The first kit, now known as Five Stripes, was unveiled at The Tabernacle, a venue in downtown Atlanta. The secondary kit, dubbed Concrete and Strawberry, occurred during halftime – surprising at least one player – of the team’s first preseason game.
Here, as told by those who were there, is the story behind the unveiling of Atlanta United’s first two kits. The voices include Atlanta United President Darren Eales, Vice Presidents Carlos Bocanegra and Catie Griggs, players Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz and Julian Gressel and supporters Robyn Saghini and Kevin Kinley. Some quotes have been edited for context, clarity or length.
Eales: We did all the research that we'd spoken about with the team name, with our fans, but in terms of the identity, the stripes was something that quite early ... no one was really using stripes in MLS. It's an iconic soccer outfit, whether it's Juventus with their black and white stripes or AC Milan.
If I go back to it, the kit fed everything else.
It was part of the … whether it was the whole thing about United the name….social media at the time came out with its view ... in my mind it was part of the whole brand, and that included the stripes.
That jersey was always front and center when we were designing the logo.
We already had our kit. We knew what it was going to look like. From that perspective we had it in our heads for a long time.
The next thing we did is normally what happens when teams come in (to MLS), they release their jerseys in February before you kick off in March. Coming from the Premier League where you want to maximize your opportunity to sell the merchandise.
We worked with MLS and Adidas, we wanted to get it out by Thanksgiving. Why not have it out early to get the Christmas windows? We really had to work hard to do that. We were, to be honest, a pain in the neck to the league. I think they got fed up with me hounding them.
It was absolutely the right thing to do. When you look to that first game at Bobby Dodd (Stadium), the reason we had all our fans in the crowd wearing out shirts is because we had an opportunity to sell them.
This was important to us that we had a launch event, ideally, around Thanksgiving time because it was part of our brand, it was an important part of our identity, we didn’t know at the time that part of our nickname. That’s why we wanted to make it an event to celebrate. Let’s not be shy. Let’s make it fun.
The Tabernacle is an iconic downtown venue. That was our concept.
Eales and others in Atlanta United’s front office had a concern: Would people fill up the venue? It seems laughable now considering how many attendance records the team owns, but they weren’t sure. Eales said going by rules of thumb for established franchises, it might be give away five free tickets for every one that might attend.
However, everything the team had dealt with had a very high attendance rate. They were in a quandary as to how many do they make available. They didn’t want to have too few and then people don’t show up and they’ve got a half-empty event. Likewise, they can’t do too many and they can’t get in.
Eales: We did a pretty low one. Of course, our fans delivered in spades.
There may have been close to too many. The Fire Marshal had to come and walk through the building to make sure it could handle the expected turnout, which delayed things by at least 30 minutes.
Saghini: I remember planning for that night almost like it was a tailgate and game we were preparing for. We even had a pregame meet up spot at Switchyards, but only a handful of people showed up. Those that did marched, chanting the whole time, from Switchyards (which is only a block away from the Tabernacle) to the end of the line to get into the event.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
The show started. The place was packed. Giant letters A, T, L, U, T and D were on the stage. Three players, Andrew Carleton, Chris McCann and Hector Villalba were the models for the new kits.
Eales: Some of the moments, we did American-style.
Chris McCann came from Burnley. Very sort of northern, dour, down to earth. ... They would never reveal their kit in a theater. As you step through the U of an ATLUTD with confetti flying everywhere.
Chris McCann got a sense of “Wow, this is going to be something different. This will be big.” That was a moment for him that, “Wow, didn’t expect that.”
Saghini: I don't remember much between getting inside and the start of the event, but I do remember the train horn just before the reveal video started. My friend and I started screaming at that because we'd been asking for that specific thing for years.
There was one glitch during the presentation. The players were asked questions. The answers were scripted. The players had to recite only their answer. Hector Villalba doesn’t speak English. He was asked his question in Spanish. He answered in Spanish. The interpreter turned to the crowd and …
Eales: He gave the whole answer back in Spanish! There was this moment where everyone is looking at each other. He keeps coming. He does two minutes, and we are looking around.
Even the (interpreter) realized that he hadn’t translated it. He came back to try to translate it into English, and we were like, “No, no, no. That ship’s sailed.”
To this day, no one knows what Villalba said. He didn’t respond to an invitation to share his comments from that night.
Eales: To be honest, it's almost like we don't care. It was comedy gold.
Bocanegra: That's why (interpreter) Justin (Veldhuis) is here now. That's why he's the main man now. That's why he was born.
Oh, there was one wardrobe malfunction.
Eales: The shirts were an athletic fit. I had a medium on. Honestly, I was struggling to breathe. I'm not a medium anymore. I was a medium at my fighting weight 20 years ago. It was like wearing a corset. Trying to breathe in and not collapse on the stage.
Designing the jersey was simple, according to Eales.
Eales: Our view was we weren't going to hire a firm to design the brand, the club name, the identity, but we were going to work with Adidas because of their experience. As we thought about the kit, for me the kit is a huge part of your identity. Ironically, it became our nickname. It shows you how important it can be.
We could own the stripes. We were in a new team in a new league, but we wanted to have that feeling that we’d been around for a number of years.
When I think back, there’s lot of things that we are all proud of with Atlanta United, and it’s been amazing what we’ve been on but that feeling of even after season 1 that look and feel, it’s like we’ve been around for a long time because we had that classic first kit. That was all part of the identity.
That first kit was designed early and helped us to build everything else.
That was part of my frustration when just United FC got leaked without the logo, without anyone knowing obviously knowing what the kit was going to be because we hadn’t done the launch at the Tabernacle, but in my mind I was more confident because I knew the whole picture. I knew the storyline.
That first kit cemented Atlanta United, the five stripes that are in our logo, that will always be what our identity is.
I feel good that whatever happens in the future, we own the stripes, the black and red, in Major League Soccer. We own that.
The event was a success. Even those who didn’t attend said they could feel the energy coming through their laptop screens.
Griggs: I was watching the livestream on Facebook. I was invited but my husband was out of town and my son was very young, so I was home-bound.
It was cool to the extent that (energy) actually transmitted through the livestream. I actually watched the whole thing. The reality is when you see long-form streaming content, especially when you have a child, the probability of getting through the whole thing without being pulled away or losing interest is low.
One of the things that was really cool was it was clear the way in which fans were over the moon excited. It was really interesting to see Tito, translation issues aside, though for me that made for great viewing, the way the players were introduced, to me as someone who was not an endemic soccer fan, for the first time and it was something we are coming out.
This is real. This is big-time. There’s something happening.
Saghini: At the end of the event on stage, though, a bunch of us were throwing our scarves to the players and staff and mine ended up with Tata (Gerardo Martino).
The highlight of that event was seeing Tito again, of course. I was at his intro press conference back in June of that year. I heard he was downstairs meeting fans, but for whatever reason, I didn’t make it down there in time to see him, although I did run into Andrew Carleton. I did get to meet Chris McCann after the reveal, though. He was just wandering around once the place had mostly cleared out, so I went over and said hello and chatted with him for a few minutes.
Bocanegra: It was a pretty special night. It was event after event. We were doing that lead-up to the season.
We have some players. We have a jersey. It started to feel real.
Place was packed. Really fun night. Really cool venue. It felt like we had arrived. We had a name. We had players. We had a jersey. It was, “OK, this is us.” We are starting to take shape. You are starting to see colors around town.
I think that was pretty cool to be able to reveal that with some players on the stage. We are alive. We can do it now.
Eales: Again, for me, in terms of top five moments in building the franchise, it's definitely up there for me. Thinking about it, we are still five months away from playing a game. I remember going for a walk about six hours before the doors open, and we already had people tailgating in the car parks around the big ferris wheel. For me, that was a sign of what was to come and the crazy, avid nature of our fans.
This was a kit launch and it was the best.
Most of the players would love the primary kit.
Gressel: I liked the new uniforms a lot. Especially the home kit. The initial one was great. It was perfect for the first season. It was exactly what the club kind of branded themselves to be with the red and black stripes. They fit good.
They were just good to wear. Always a sense of pride to put them on, especially at home in front of our home fans where were everyone wears those as well. it was cool to wear those.
Parkhurst: I hope they never get away from the five stripes for the home jersey. That's emblematic of Atlanta United. Hopefully that stays forever.
The secondary kit was revealed Feb. 12, 2017 during halftime of the team’s first exhibition game at Chattanooga. The players were surprised to see so many supporters at the stadium when the bus pulled up.
Larentowicz: Significant because it was first time we played in front of our fans.
It was that moment where we were a team coming together.
Before, (everything) was really quiet. We were in Flowery Branch. We were in Florida. We didn’t feel attached to anything. No training facility. No stadium yet. No fans until we showed up to that game.
Bus pulled in … that’s the way it was in the Chattanooga game. Fans were everywhere.
It was really awesome.
That was moment for me when, OK we do have some attachment.
Gressel: We were so thankful they were there for that game. This was the first time that we were exposed to the fans. It was something special to standout for that second group in the second half to come in, which was nice. That was a cool moment for us as a team because of our first connection to the fans. To unveil the second kit like that was fun.
Parkhurst: I don't remember too much about that game. I definitely remember the kit change. I think I only played half. I remember the crowd going crazy when Carleton scored and thinking "I can't believe how many people drove just to watch this preseason game against a lower division team." Looking back it doesn't surprise me, but at the time it did strike me. That's pretty rare for MLS.
The unveiling was interesting because some players, such as Larentowicz, came on during the first half and then played in the second half. They had to change during halftime, while trying to stay warmed up to play in the second half.
And the players who were coming on to start the second half, or were going to play in the second half, were told not to reveal the new kits until just before the start of the half, so they had to warm up in tops that covered the kit.
Larentowicz: Meant almost no warm up for the second half. I went in wearing the black and red and came out wearing the gray.
I think it’s something we learned early on that the club was trying to think about every detail, dot every i and cross every t, do it in their way and do it in a special way.
Probably because that care was given to it.
Gressel: I didn't know that we had to change jerseys at that Chattanooga game at halftime to be honest. It was quite strange. You try to warm up and then you try to play good. You try to make an impression, especially as guys that came in for the second team. It was a bit strange, but I think we made it work. We got the whole point that this will be fun for the fans.
Kinley: That game in Chattanooga was surreal. With the game at a lower league venue, it didn't feel like Atlanta United was a full professional MLS team. We got word from the front office for supporters-group members to meet behind the funnel-cake trailer for a special event before the game. They corralled is into this area near the end line close to the field. Then we saw the cameras start taking pictures and they passed out these gold boxes with the concrete-gray secondary kits. Everyone was so excited and holding up the new jerseys.
It was a great first-time experience, grilling hot dogs under the barn cover, the feeling of a lower level match and the beginning of something special and new. All the kids we took to the game will never forget it.
And opinions on the kit itself?
Larentowicz: I didn't love it, but I love it now because of the connection to that year.
Parkhurst: I liked that initial gray away jersey. I know you have to change at least one jersey every year. It's a shame we only had it for a year. I liked that one because it was a little different. Not too many teams had an away gray jersey.