Saturday night at 8 p.m., Atlanta United Football Club will face the Portland Timbers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the right to lift the MLS Cup.
While many readers of this publication may look at Atlanta United as a fad for kids, millennials and gentrified individuals, do not gloss over the facts and figures that will be presented in this piece. If you’re new or skeptical of Atlanta United, this column is for you.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane:
April 17, 2014 — Arthur M. Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, along with Don Garber, Commissioner of Major League Soccer, jointly announced atop the Hilton Garden Inn on Marietta Street that Major League Soccer would be coming to Atlanta, there was excitement among those who enjoyed the sport. Immigrants, Africans, the Latino communities, and Americans who were already exposed to the game welcomed the team with open arms.
Blank said the new team would play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there would be no NFL markings on the field and the stadium would be constructed to hold a playing surface that measures 115 yards long, and 75 yards wide.
However, Atlanta’s larger sporting landscape was not sure if a largely fickle fanbase would be receptive to “Soccer in the South.”
July 8, 2015 — Compound Nightclub was the location for a raucous and rambunctious day party. No, it was not put on by famed club owner Alex Gidewon, it was hosted by Atlanta United. More than 4,000 people lined Brady Avenue to see the new logo inside the indoor-outdoor entertainment complex.
“It’s a strong logo,” owner Arthur Blank said. “It represents Atlanta, which is what we wanted to pitch. It’s very compatible with other logos you might see in soccer, nationally and internationally.”
Breaking down some of the pieces of the logo, with what they represent provided by the team:
- The gold circle: Inspired by the city’s seal and its history of hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics. It is a symbol of unity and globalization. It represents the never-ending passion for this city and the club.
- The golden A: The bold A puts the focus on the enduring strength of Atlanta. The A is anchored to the circle, symbolizing its connection to the community.
- Stripes: The five stripes represent what the franchise considers the pillars of the city’s character: Unity, Determination, Community, Excellence, and Innovation. The black stripes are a nod to the city’s history as a railroad town.
- Black: A symbol of strength and power.
- Red: “Victory red” represents pride and passion.
- Gold: Symbolizes a commitment to excellence.
At that moment, a lot of people took notice. However, people weren’t sure of this new “thing” in Atlanta.
Sept. 27, 2016 — Atlanta United announced former Argentina and Futbol Club de Barcelona manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino would become the first head coach for the new club.
Nov. 15, 2016 — Atlanta United hosted another party, this time at the Tabernacle to unveil their new kits (uniforms in American nomenclature). As many know it, the jersey has gold letters, numerals and trim with Atlanta United logo adorning the left breastplate, and a matching gold Adidas insignia on the right breastplate.
Tito Villalba, Andrew Carleton, and Chris McCann were the only three players signed to Atlanta United at the time, yet, they were excited for what would come later.
“We are thrilled to finally be able to share this moment with our fans and unveil our inaugural kit,” said Atlanta United President Darren Eales. “As always our supporters showed extraordinary energy and passion at tonight’s event, and their response to the kit has been fantastic. The design elements of the kit align with the mission of the club, to deliver passion, inspiration, and world-class soccer to Atlanta. We ultimately arrived on a look that is iconic, bold and timeless.”
Tata’s hire set the tone for the current pipeline of young, dynamic, and talented footballers from South America and even in the Metro Atlanta area. The subsequent signings of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, plus local young stars Andrew Carleton, George Bello, and Lagos Kunga signaled a strong intent of competing for titles immediately with an attacking style of play.
March 5, 2017 — 55,297 fans showed up to Bobby Dodd Stadium for Atlanta United’s first regular season match against the New York Red Bulls. Even though the Five Stripes lost the match 2-1, MLS Commissioner Don Garber could not believe the mammoth crowd that descended upon Georgia Tech.
Young Joc nailed the Golden Spike while Monica sang the National Anthem on that Sunday evening. Atlanta United hitched their marketing wagon to the youngsters, in-towners and the local hip-hop scene. The football club that grew at the intersection of two railroad tracks became the talk of world soccer.
Atlanta United branded Bobby Dodd Stadium as a cauldron of noise, a multi-cultural party that would bring social media influencers together with suburban families, Latino communities which brought their cadence of music, support, chants, and fervent passion.
Suddenly, that patch of grass along North Avenue was the place to be. Later in the 2017 season, Atlanta United moved to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The attendance records fell in a heartbeat. The club wanted to cap the attendance at 45,000 by closing the third deck of “The Benz.” However, as the team’s play captivated audiences, the folks on the fringe were now captivated to watch this new phenomenon.
In the 2018 season, Atlanta United set the MLS record for total home attendance, at 901,033 across 17 games, and a single-season average of 53,002 after 71,812 people showed up for a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018.
Yes, that was an NFL Sunday. Which brings us to Saturday’s MLS Cup.
This year’s MLS Cup will shatter the previous attendance record for the league’s championship game. In 2002, 61,316 fans watched the Los Angeles Galaxy defeat the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
For the second consecutive season, Atlanta United set MLS attendance records. It averaged a record 53,002 fans a game this season, surpassing the mark for its inaugural season when United averaged 48,200 per game (Atlanta officials said this season’s average attendance was the 17th highest in the world).
The 70,526 spectators for Leg 2 of its Eastern Conference semifinal against New York City FC also is an all-time MLS record for a playoff game (70,016 fans showed up to watch Atlanta beat the New York Red Bulls, 3-0, in Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference final).
Major key: Feb. 3, Mercedes-Benz Stadium will join the Rose Bowl as the only stadiums to host both an MLS Cup and the Super Bowl. Atlanta is the host for Super Bowl LIII. The Rose Bowl hosted the 1998 MLS Cup and five Super Bowls (XI, XIV, XVII, XXI, and XXVII).
One thing is clear, many individuals around the world did not know anything about Atlanta before March 7, 2017. Through the lenses of hip-hop, tailgating and that A-Town Sound, Atlanta United is a cultural force in the United States sporting pantheon and throughout the world.