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September 10: Atlanta United’s day of reckoning

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Sunday is a pivotal moment in Atlanta United history

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MBS-Aerial
Exterior concept rendering from MercedesBenzStadium.com

September 10 is a very big deal in the history of Atlanta United FC. There’s no doubt that the butterflies will be fluttering in the stomachs of Arthur Blank, Darren Eales, et al that morning as they fix their ties and lace up their shoes before heading out for the day. It’s a day that will signify so much of what the club has built up to this point. On the field, there’s a result at stake. But off the field, whether in the seats adjacent the field or in homes across the state, there’s even more at stake. What September 10 represents — Atlanta United’s ability to maintain a foothold within the sporting hierarchy of Atlanta, Georgia, and beyond — will be the first in a series of tests that help determine the true strength of the collective fan base.

On the field, Atlanta is at a crossroads in its inaugural MLS season, sitting right on the edge of playoff position. Despite having games in hand baked into that position in the standings, the team need Mercedes Benz Stadium to prove as reliable of a home fortress as Bobby Dodd Stadium was on July 29, when the Five Stripes played its last game in Atlanta. Even putting results aside, the team needs to improve the quality of performances in its new home. Atlanta has struggled to play attractive soccer as of late, rarely playing with the tempo and style that made them irresistible to watch earlier in the season. Will they be able to recapture that form in Mercedes Benz Stadium, a venue that has a different playing surface than Bobby Dodd? Sunday will give us a clue as to how things will play out.

But the date of September 10 is just as much of a tipping point for the club off the field. This day will serve as a test. The Falcons kick off their season at 1 p.m. that day in Chicago, with Atlanta United set to start at 3:30 p.m. With the two games overlapping, what will the turnout be like? The team announced on July 31 that the game was sold out.

But that was well over a month ago, and it includes some 30,000+ season ticket holders who might be thinking “I’ve been to a bunch of Atlanta United games this season, but I haven’t seen the Falcons in forever. I’ll just sell my ticket for this week.” There are still plenty of tickets available as of now, by my rough estimate about 2,000 or so.

Darren Eales spoke to the Atlanta Business Journal about the decision not to open up Mercedes Benz Stadium to full capacity for the first game against Dallas, despite the fact that MBS will have already hosted two college football games with the stadium completely open.

“The reason we’re going with the Atlanta United configuration for the first game [in Mercedes-Benz Stadium] is because that game is for our founding members that have been with us from the beginning. It’s going to be pack to the gills with 42,500 and we wanted it to be special for our founding members.”

This has never quite passed the smell test among the fan base, and now that the date is approaching, it’s becoming more clear as to why. It’s a wise decision though. With all the energy the club has built among the fans, the club would be risking a lot by challenging themselves to sell more than double the amount of tickets (not including season ticket holders) with only marginal gains at stake. The optics of a half full upper deck for its first game in MBS would be bad for the club. Not coincidentally the two games that the club will open the upper deck for don’t have the same conflict with the Falcons schedule that September 10 does.

Personally, I don’t have much doubt that the atmosphere for the match will be incredible. The fans who are there will be raucous, inebriated (to the delight of Darren Eales), and fully supportive of the home side. But will as many people watch the game on TV? Will there be as much engagement and interaction on social media? How will the local media, specifically the team’s radio partner 92.9 The Game handle the occasion? All of these questions are things the team has prepared for all season. Sunday will be a day of reckoning.