ATLANTA – The Atlanta United football club arrived on Sunday night perfect, pure, innocent of all the sins of all the teams that this city has committed. It didn’t take the club long to get some vintage Atlanta stank on ‘em, but still: this was a debut full of promise, a debut of a team that could well own this city in a few years.
Some background. When last most of you saw Atlanta, the Falcons were blowing a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl, the pièce de résistance in a half-century of athletic futility. The Braves are tomahawk-deep in a rebuilding phase and have abandoned the city altogether for a new stadium in the suburbs, while the Hawks are once again gearing up for a futile charge up Mount LeBron. The Thrashers exist only in memory and peeling bumper stickers.
So, yeah, this wouldn’t seem to be exactly fertile territory for a professional league to set down some new roots. But Falcons owner Arthur Blank has managed to hold onto most of the city’s goodwill in a way that the corporate-owned Braves and the hydra-headed ownership groups of the Hawks haven’t. Blank enticed Major League Soccer to site a new franchise in Atlanta in 2014 – the culmination of a courtship that had gone on since 2008 – and on Sunday night, Atlanta United took their first baby steps.
There’s not exactly an auspicious soccer history in Atlanta. The Chiefs (like the Braves, get it) played here twice in the ’60s and ’70s, once vaporizing when the team’s entire league started taking on water, then crumbling in the early ‘80s after seasons of playing in front of fewer than 5,000 fans. The Atlanta Beat, a women’s soccer team, similarly saw two teams vanish due to the leagues’ failure. The Atlanta Silverbacks have bounced around multiple leagues and stadiums.
The heart of Atlanta soccer exists at the youth level, where every team, boys and girls alike, features at least one preternaturally talented little gunner and at least three Madisons and Dylans. The question, in Atlanta as anywhere else across the country, is how do you translate enthusiasm for the orange-slices leagues to the pro level?
Atlanta United pursued a deft two-pronged strategy: lure in Falcons fans with the promise of a familiar feel (the club sports red and black, and will play its home games in the gargantuan robot cathedral that is Mercedes-Benz Stadium, once it opens) while simultaneously appealing to the city’s diverse, non-native, and soccer-knowledgeable population. And for one night, at least, it worked flawlessly, even if Atlanta lost 2-1 to the New York Red Bulls.
There’s some small irony in a new Atlanta team playing its inaugural game on the campus of Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium, a century-plus-old facility. It’s one of the oldest buildings in a city that worships the new. And on Sunday night, it was crammed full of 55,297 fans cheering on – of all things – a team wearing the hated red-and-black of Tech’s blood rival, the University of Georgia. (One Tech fan kept the home-field faith, sporting a yellow wig and waving a blue-and-gold flag, but he was by far the exception.)
No disrespect intended to Tech, but the crusty old girders and concrete of Bobby Dodd don’t often hear a cheer like the one that welled up in the 25th minute when Yamil Asad scored the first goal in Atlanta United history. The bleachers don’t often sway and rumble like a locomotive the way they did when tens of thousands of fans stomped the aluminum in unison. The fans don’t often see speed, precision and unmitigated joy on this field the way they saw Atlanta United galloping around for, well, the first 75 minutes or so of the match.
Look, the night wasn’t perfect. For starters, an Atlanta team once again saw a long-held lead against a Northeastern rival vanish in the final minutes of the contest. But that’s to be expected; this is a young team, after all, a club that basically ran itself out of this match after owning the pitch for most of the evening.
On an uglier note, several fans reported a recurrence of the regrettable, homophobic “puto” cheer that wells up at matches. Both soccer and Atlanta have a long and checkered history with racism and intolerance, a history that’s far better left in the past.
This is going to be a learning experience for all of us, from remembering the proper terminology to using the right singular/plural forms for the club to understanding the nuance of chants and cheers. (The club handed out a helpful sheet of chant lyrics, but late in the match, the crowd defaulted to a “REF YOU SUCK” chant that would’ve warmed the heart of any SEC fan.) But for a night, at least, Atlanta United owned the city, and that’s no small achievement.
One final note: the “conversation overheard leaving the stadium” is the laziest form of journalism, worse even than the “taking the pulse of the local culture by talking to the cab driver” routine. EVEN SO … I overheard a couple bros leaving the stadium perfectly encapsulate what will give this club a foothold in this city.
“Dude, that was awesome!” one said. “I don’t give a [expletive] about soccer, but that was fun.”
Now, you can’t build a foundation on fans who don’t give a [expletive] about your sport, but you can get them in the door. And in Atlanta, that’s perhaps the greatest challenge.
Atlanta United have a rare opportunity right now. This could be exactly what this town needs.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.