(-Ed. Note: Donald Wine II is a co-manager at Stars and Stripes FC and contributor for Black and Red United. He attended the historic match against Orlando City. Here are his thoughts as a neutral on the MBS experience)
Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Ever since the stadium opened earlier this month for two college football games, the stadium has been one of the most discussed things in sports. With the halo video boards and the unique roof to the exterior design and use of windows to send in light, it’s been much anticipated by many who live well OTP. So, when one of my best friends offered me a chance to come visit and take in an Atlanta United match in the new stadium, I said “O-Yea-Yer!” Then, when I realized it was the match against Orlando City, I was like “Wow, that could be a really good game.” I was in there like swimwear.
Now, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a diehard D.C. United supporter. Yep, you know the team. Yep, we done taken your cookies 3 times this year. But, I came to this match not to hate on either team, but to take in the full experience as a neutral for once and enjoy a soccer game in a brand new football stadium built jointly for soccer. Let me take you through the day and let you know what I saw and liked.
We started at my friend’s condo and walked through downtown to The Gulch, where all the supporters have their tailgate. We got there at the very early stages of the tailgate, giving us time to walk around and for me to meet some of the heavy hitters from each of the major supporters groups. After we did that, we headed to the La Dulce tailgate, where they had the bomb carne asada on the grill and a fresh Modelo at the ready. Then, we spent most of our time bouncing around between the Resurgence and Footie Mob tailgates. The Gulch reminds me a bit of Lot 8 here at RFK Stadium in the sense that all of the supporters are in the same general area and people are free to flow between tailgates. People were kicking around soccer balls, blasting all of the music (more on that in a minute), grilling, having a few beers and jello shots, and overall having a great time. The Gulch is not as big as Lot 8 and will never duplicate the awesomeness that is Lot 8 in my mind, but I thought the area was very well equipped for all the supporters to gather and have a good time.
If Atlanta does anything better than the rest of MLS, it’s the music selection. Those who know me know that I stay bumping rap music, and nowadays most of the good stuff is coming from Atlanta. Atlanta rap, trap and old school music was bumping from start to finish and you can’t help but have a good time to that. The amount of Atlanta music you can reference made for great shirts and signs. There was one glaring omission from all of the music I heard though: I did not hear one single Migos song. Not one. This was obviously a mistake, and I will not hold it against you all so long as it never happens again! You play the Migos and you play their music loud and proud!
Everyone I met was very warm and welcoming, and incredibly nice. “What it is bruh, what it do mayne,” and all other kinds of handshakes and pleasantries were given, and all were cool even after finding out I was a D.C. United fan. In the end, that’s what tailgating is all about…preparing for a game with some fun people and meeting others. When Atlanta came to D.C. in June and August, we were proud to welcome ATL supporters to our tailgate and everyone had a great time. It was cool to see some of those people yesterday and be welcomed by so many to experience The Gulch.
We took in the march, though we walked in front of it for the most part so we could a) see it develop, and b) due to my body not reacting with smoke very well. It’s pretty cool that you’re able to walk through the MARTA station to get to the top and walk towards the Benz. It is a pretty far walk, so there were a couple points that the march had to reorganize. But, people were into it and, more importantly, the march was unique to any I’ve seen with the route and being able to exit a train station to the top and walk across that main plaza towards the Benz.
Alright, we get to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, what I’ve been waiting for. I will say first off, the halo video boards are awesome. The exterior design with the huge windows allowed for people to see the video boards rolling from The Gulch. That is a great marketer, as you could see people just stopping during the tailgate to gaze at the video boards inside pumping out stats. Entering the stadium, the 15th MLS stadium I have visited for a MLS or a United States match, you can instantly see the field and the video boards. The sightlines were terrific all around the stadium. I was curious to see how it looks because on TV for soccer, it doesn’t look that great. The sunlight entering the stadium creates a great look, but on TV there’s a bit of a glare that doesn’t allow for you to really see the various nuances of the stadium.
For the first half, we sat in the 200-level near the supporters end but on the sideline just past the 18-yard box. The sightlines from there were perfect…you could see the entire field and there are no obstructions. It was cool that there was no pressure for people to sit in that section, either. Half the people were standing, clearly supporters who opted not to sit in the supporters section but were into all the chants. The others were into it as well even while seated. The food was terrific and cheap! We’ve all heard about the Benz setting prices deliberately low to allow for families to enjoy a game on the affordable side, but this was incredible. Most food is no more than $7, same with drinks. I thoroughly enjoy that you can get a souvenir soda cup for $4 and just refill it whenever you want at any game. This is something that the Benz has a leg up on the rest of the nation.
For the second half, we walked into the supporters section and sat in section 102, about 10 rows up from the field. With everyone standing in that section, the view of the goal was obstructed because of the field suites underneath that section. I found my eyes gravitating north to the halo video boards to catch some of the action in the final attacking third on that end. That might be the biggest negative of the place, and also may be why a lot of supporters chose to get tickets outside the section. The supporters should have the best view in the endzone, but in the Benz I just don’t think they have it for soccer. All in all, the stadium is very nice. I won’t anoint it the best in the nation (that honor, for me, goes to AT&T Stadium), but it’s definitely up there in terms of nicest stadiums that I have visited.
Let’s discuss whether Atlanta United and Orlando City have a rivalry. I’ve heard from some fans of both teams that it is, and I’ve heard from others that it isn’t. Well, if it isn’t a rivalry, you guys sure have a funny way of showing it. On the field, this is an absolute rivalry. It was an action packed game, where Josef Martinez and Dom Dwyer put on an absolute show. Dwyer would score and Martinez would respond. Back and forth for the whole match, those two were carrying their respective teams. The game was up-tempo but wasn’t sloppy even on the turf. Still, it was very chippy at times, and these guys played this game like it was a showcase rivalry.
Off the field, both Atlanta and Orlando fans have made it clear that this is a rivalry. The burning of team flags, paying for billboards in the other’s city, a postcard sign to the Orlando City supporters groups wishing they were at the match (as you know, they were banned from this match), and the list goes on. There were several chants from the supporters section letting Orlando know exactly how you feel about them. My neutral verdict: just accept the reality you have given yourselves. Atlanta and Orlando may not be the rivalry in MLS, but a rivalry you guys have here.
Finally, let’s discuss the atmosphere. To do that, we start with a number: 70,425. The largest attendance in MLS history. That’s a remarkable accomplishment and one Atlanta should be proud to hold. I was in Michigan Stadium for the largest attended soccer game in U.S. history (Real Madrid vs. Manchester United, 2014), so it was real dope to be a part of another record-setting crowd. The bulk of the crowd arrived late, but they eventually filled in most of the stadium. The crowd was loud at times, very loud at a couple points, and okay at others. Several of the chants that involved clapping were key, as the casual attendees were able to just clap along to the beat, and that will easily reverberate in a dome like the Benz. Also, 70,000 people clapping will create a certain level of noise, no matter how you slice it. I think the crowd is at its peak during two points: the A-T-L boom-boom clap, and when the supporters yell “Atlanta!” while the rest of the stadium yells “United!” right back.
The noise wasn’t ear-splitting. It wasn’t the loudest moment of anyone’s life. But, it was pretty loud, especially for those points. You could hear the supporters section very clearly at points, but when the chant didn’t involve clapping, it wasn’t as loud. But, that’s not something that’s an ATL-unique problem. You will find that in several stadiums around the league. What I will say is that the supporters group was energized and kept at it even when the team gave them a couple reasons not to be energetic, and the casuals were consistently joining in. That creates the sound, and because of that, the atmosphere was still off the heezy fo’ sheezy.
The Overall Review
Forever I Love Atlanta. It’s a city that I always enjoy visiting, it’s home to some of my best friends, and you already know I have conquered all the food it has to offer and then some over the decades. So, I’m not shocked by the fact I had a great time at the match and really enjoyed Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Is the atmosphere the freshest thing since sliced bread? Not quite. Was the stadium the best I’ve ever been in? No, but it’s up there. Does Atlanta got something going here? Absolutely. When D.C. United plays down there next season, I will be back for sure (I’m hoping it’s for two matches). Hang your hats on the fact that the South got something to say, and the ATL is saying it pretty well. The rest of the league is paying attention.
The whole experience was cooler than a polar bear’s toenail. Peace up, A-Town down…well done.