Think about that first night. The one in Bobby Dodd.
A lot of us rode MARTA to the game. All you had to do was hop off at North Avenue and take a short walk past The Varsity. Past the tailgates. Over the bridge. Into the stadium.
I remember being surprised to see people on the train wearing jerseys. You heard the game was sold out but to see people actually wearing the jerseys, wearing the scarfs was something else. It was tangible.
I got to my seat early just to...I don’t know, see what a soccer field looked like? Like I had forgotten somewhere in between Dunwoody and Midtown.
And then the game came and I had a seat on the front row of the second level. Right above the Supporters’ Section. Which meant that when the time came to unveil the night’s tifo, me and my seatmates were in charge of offloading a massive and heavy section of cloth over the railing and down below without committing manslaughter. Which, naturally, I totally screwed up. Not the manslaughter part. Everyone lived to my knowledge. But.
See how the four stripes on the left are nice and fanned out? See how the one on the far right is......not that?
My foot got caught. The cloth went over. Ninety percent of it stayed in the upper deck. A horrified Supporters’ Group member, clearly involved with organizing the tifo, stood next to me and stared forward for a moment. She shook her head. “Welp. I guess we just ended up on Deadspin.”
The first moment the world laid eyes on an Atlanta United crowd and I screwed it up.
However, if not for a wayward blogger’s foot, the tifo might have been perfect. At least for it’s intended symbolism. Five Stripes. And, most importantly, a phoenix for a team rising from nothing and for a city famously rebuilt from the ashes. Instead, the world got more like four and a half stripes.
The game itself also came close to perfect. The first goal was perfect. But Atlanta lost.
Two imperfect moments. But not Atlanta United’s first or last.
Think about the name reveal. The crest reveal, too.
They both leaked. Everyone knew the team’s identity well before the best plans of the front office intended. Not only that but it leaked to an unwelcoming audience. The name got mixed reviews if not openly torched. The crest received the same treatment. Mostly because, honestly, they were (and are) kind of bad.
But that first game still sold out. People bought in. They chanted the name of the club. And they chanted at a stadium they were only in because the stadium originally slated to be finished by the opening match failed to be completed in time. And then the next game sold out. And the next. And so on. Until tickets for MLS Cup sold out. All gone within hours of the Eastern Conference Final’s last whistle.
Think about the Columbus game.
A late free-kick from Giovinco sent the Five Stripes spiraling into a knockout round game on the last day of the season. Zack Steffen played a game that earned him at least $9 million of his $10 million transfer fee. Miguel Almiron smashed a shot off the crossbar. Jeff Larentowicz clanked a penalty off the post. A crowd of 70,000 filed out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and began the sad walk back to MARTA.
Think about the first game this season.
I promise it really happened. 4-0. To Houston. Houston.
And the last game of the season.
A chance at the Supporters’ Shield. A chance at the first trophy in club history. Come. Lost. Choked away.
Think about Barcogate. VAR bullying Atlanta for what seemed like 20 games in a row. Josef screaming at a fan. Every Red Bulls game.
All failures. Outright. Despite them, this team has reached the biggest game possible. And they’ve not only made their way through the playoffs, but dominated. VAR chose Atlanta. Josef won MVP and people asked, “Where’s the best place to put a statue?” Atlanta United beat Red Bulls, the team that ruined that first night in Bobby Dodd, when it mattered most. And not only beat them, but mollywhopped them.
The disappointment hits. This team falls. This team rises. This team — and this culture — find success.
No team has ever embodied the city like Atlanta United. For so many reasons. But on the day of MLS Cup, this feels vital: Atlanta — The Phoenix City. A city justifiably sent to the ground and raised against all odds to a place among the world’s best — Has poured itself into a team that began from nothing and has repositioned itself after every failure to come back stronger.
It’s a bad idea, a bad sports town and a marketing stumble out of the gate that’s turned into THE team in MLS.
It’s a fan base — filled with transplants who have come to the city to build new parts of their lives from the ground up, and filled with natives who have watched Atlanta’s teams crash and burn on the biggest stages again and again — that shows up in impossible numbers.
It’s a culture that will still welcome you with open arms even after they find out you messed up the first ever tifo.
And it’s a club that is 90 minutes plus stoppage time away from bringing the city it embodies a championship that no one thought possible six years ago, and many thought lost six weeks ago in Toronto, and if today ends with a win, if, finally, an Atlanta team has it all go right...
Wow. Just think about everything going right.
Like everything Atlanta, it will have come from the ashes.
Wouldn’t have it any other way, y’all.