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A Cultural Eruption: Soccer in the Southeast

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Atlanta United’s arrival has changed the landscape of soccer in America.

MLSsoccer.com

On a weekend with sadly no Atlanta United, I’ve decided to look back and look at the cultural impact that Atlanta United has had not just in the city itself, but the entire region.

When Yamil Asad volleyed home a cross from Tyrone Mears in front of fifty five thousand people on March 5, an entire region rejoiced. The Southeast region of the United States had been longing, aching for this moment. Finally seeing a team that they could call their own had been a work in progress for years. For some people, it was a moment they had been waiting for their whole lives. For others, it opened up their eyes to a world they never knew existed. For the longest time, the MLS team map looked like this:

The Southeast region is remarkably blank. If you live in cities as north as Louisville, Kentucky all the way down to New Orleans or even in Florida, you didn’t have a team to root for. In Nashville, the closest team was Columbus Crew, which is a full 6-hour drive. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to live in Atlanta or any of the Florida cities.

Even when Orlando got a team in 2015, the general Southeast felt left out. The drive from Birmingham, AL was a brutal 12 hours to Orlando. The mindset from typical southerners also meant that Florida was seen as a separate entity from the Southeast. Orlando could be a team that Florida related with and could support, but the rest still felt so far away. Teams in countries like England have shorter trips because the country and league is smaller, so the “local team” trope can apply extremely well. If you live in Helena, Montana or Little Rock, Arkansas, who is your local team? These colossal gaps in area for MLS teams naturally stunted growth in these areas. In the Southeast though, there was an event that lit a spark nonetheless.

In 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup, which still holds the record for the highest World Cup attendance numbers. This sparked interest across the whole country, converting people who might not have known anything about the sport into full-blown soccer fans. What really affected the Southeast in particular was the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Through personal account growing up in the Southeast, after listening to my parents and friends talk about soccer in the area, almost all of it stems from soccer in the 1996 Olympic games. With most of the matches being held in Birmingham, where I grew up, this makes sense. Combined with the other games in the 1994 World Cup across the country, this provided a solid platform for parents to put their children into soccer around that time.

Parents put their young children into soccer all around the Southeast, which led to an extremely competitive age group that came through when I was in school. These towns were getting more and more soccer exposure without even realizing it and were becoming fans. Soccer may still be a cultural niche in the states, but the niche was growing at an exponential rate. The competitiveness of my generation that came through in Birmingham created a soccer culture where the high school football stadiums were now being filled for soccer games.

But they still lacked a common identity. Atlanta United offered that identity.

Atlanta and Birmingham had been silent brewing grounds for soccer over the span of a couple decades. Now was their chance to erupt, and boy their eruption was seen across the nation. The ownership was just as ambitious as they needed to be in SEC country. Atlanta United fans are in it to win it right from the start, and that mindset reverberated from the fans all the way to the owners. The players acquired and of course Tata Martino showed fans they weren’t just here to participate.

My dad grew up as someone who didn’t really know soccer; he didn’t like it very much, and didn’t play it. With two children who had become soccer nerds, my brother and I kind of forced the sport on him at first. I remember him falling asleep during the 2012 Champions League Final, and in general having a passive interest on the sport of soccer. This was COMPLETELY understandable. As local college football fans in the state of Alabama, it’s impossible not to turn a corner and hear someone talking about how Alabama is going to do next year or if Auburn can pull another upset. Soccer has never been there in the same way. It’s hard for him to look at a Premier League team and feel any support, or even at an MLS team since the closest one was a 12-hour drive away. Now he gets mad when my brother and I don’t tell him that there’s an Atlanta United game on TV. We finally have that team we can call “ours” and go cheer and support.

One of the best things Atlanta United did was make a TV deal with Fox Sports South. Being able to watch any game on Fox Sports South gave fans an actual chance to support a team in the same way that they could for the Atlanta Falcons or the Alabama Crimson Tide. Now people can go tailgate and talk about their team in the local bar and those conversations actually be relevant to the area that they live. Instead of Alabama-Auburn trash talk, Josef Martinez almost being consumed by fire after scoring against Colorado can be the talk. Every game being available has helped spread the market and get people like my dad incredibly involved in the Atlanta United craze.

I think starting in Bobby Dodd has actually helped the fan culture around the stadium as well. The tightness of the pitch, the acoustics, it’s such an intimate setting which has been perfect for our fans. Being mere feet away from the players has made the atmosphere THAT much better, and it’s impossible for someone to go there not to fall in love. Atlanta United is becoming part of the cultural identity of the Southeast. Whether you live in Atlanta, Birmingham, Knoxville, or even Nashville, Atlanta has become part of the sports culture, and all of MLS is benefiting from it. We waited for this team, and now that we have it we will be there rowdy and proud.