Exactly one month removed from the worst night in Atlanta sports history, the city welcomed Atlanta United FC to the MLS in a big way.
Atlanta was heartbroken after the Falcons coughed up a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. But when 55,297 soccer fans came to Bobby Dodd Stadium on Sunday night to support a team that had never kicked a ball competitively, Atlanta fans proved something to everybody.
The city can bounce back. Even for a town whose sports franchises own one championship in 169 total professional seasons, the fans are there for their teams. Oh, and one more thing.
They love soccer.
The hype surrounding the 22nd club in MLS history was perhaps greater than for any other expansion club. Atlanta United had 30,000 season ticket holders before the team played a game. The only MLS club with more is the Seattle Sounders, who are just coming off an MLS championship in 2016.
It is clear that Atlanta’s fan base shares a huge connection with the club, which has four players on its squad from Georgia and two 16-year-olds who came through the homegrown youth academy. Atlanta United FC made a clear effort from the beginning to connect to the community, and it all culminated Sunday night.
Atlanta’s euphoric crowd celebrated the opening goal from Yamil Asid, who headed in a cross from Tyrone Mears at the back post in the 25th minute. The team was unable to match the hype on the stadium, however, as Atlanta fell 2–1 to the New York Red Bulls.
Atlanta had a lot of chances to double its advantage but couldn’t cash in. New York scored twice in seven minutes to steal the win, but the frustrating loss didn’t seem to matter as much. The headline was everything else.
More than three hours before kickoff, the streets around Bobby Dodd were mobbed with Atlanta fans of all ages. And they were ready to go. There were a few people wearing Falcons or Braves gear, but around 95% of the people were in Atlanta United jerseys, hats, scarves, and hoodies. The city bought into this team immediately, and it showed with the number of kids in attendance.
Adults look at this club and see another team for them to cheer for; kids see what can be possible on the biggest soccer stage in America. Atlanta United set up a youth academy to nurture local talent in the early days of the club. The result is a pair of 16-year-olds currently on the squad.
Andrew Carleton from Powder Springs, Georgia, and Chris Goslin from Locust Grove, Georgia, remind kids in the area they can play for their hometown club. Neither player got into the action on Sunday, but it won’t be long before these teenagers are representing their city on the pitch.
Carleton is already a fan favorite among kids. John, a 13-year-old from Carrolton, Georgia, didn’t hesitate when asked who is favorite player was.
“Andrew Carleton,” he immediately answered.
Kaitlyn, a 13-year-old from Atlanta, gave the exact same response in even less time. Ryan, a 17-year-old who was walking through the fan fest outside Bobby Dodd Stadium, even played with Carleton in a youth league.
“I just remember his high level of play,” said Ryan. “He has a great opportunity here.”
Atlanta’s early commitment to getting local youth involved with the club is not only paying off now, but also it will pay off when these kids become adults and take their own children to matches.
The kids outside the stadium were excited for the inaugural match, but their enthusiasm was nothing compared to how the fans inside were feeling. The north end of Bobby Dodd was full of Atlanta fans more than an hour before kickoff, with flags and drums scattered throughout the crowd.
For 90 minutes the stadium was a wall of noise, with everything ranging from long standing ovations after good attacks to the crowd immediately bursting into a thunderous “A-T-L” chant to encourage Atlanta after New York scored to tie the game deep into the second half.
Even though Atlanta came up short, the atmosphere was still positive.
It was similar in the locker room, where goalkeeper Alec Kann, a native of Decatur, Georgia, commented on the pride of playing for his hometown team.
“It was very special for me,” said Kann. “I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
55,297 showed up, and although they left disappointed, they exited with a sense of hope about an exciting new franchise.
Atlanta is officially a soccer city.
Photographs by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images (2)