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Atlanta United fans transitioning from exhilaration to expectation

There’s a different, welcome atmosphere in Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Atlanta United FC John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

This city has always loved its soccer, despite what the skeptics said in Atlanta United’s early days. We just never had a team to get behind. Until now.

Evidence of soccer’s footprint in this town has always been there, but now thanks to United it has been magnified 100 times.

If you look into The Gulch, it is apparent. One of the founders of Soccer in the Street carries the Golden Spike. A wing-eating contest is a prelude to a jersey auction benefiting the Fugees Family. Every week, there’s something happening in that concrete jungle that warms your heart and spikes your adrenaline.

And the anticipation is somehow even thicker than last season, because last season, we were waiting for an unknown quantity. Would this long-awaited soccer team live up to the unbelievable hype or disappoint us all as all the major sports teams in the state had before? We walked into last season with no defined expectations.

This season couldn’t be any different from the last, and the pressure is on now for better or worse. There was a playoff disappointment waiting at the end of last year, but the season was deemed a smashing success due to all that came before: the record-breaking crowds, the engagement of the fan base, and most importantly, the breathtaking and incendiary offensive brand of soccer being played week in and week out in the ATL, most recently exemplified by what was known to us locals as St.Hatrick’s Day.

Judging by the number of first-timer fans I’ve met these last two weeks at the Benz, there is absolutely nothing to say that we can’t continue breaking attendance records, or that you necessarily have to be a fan of soccer to enjoy this team.

All this is a very roundabout way of saying that to be one of the MLS-record 72,035 fans in attendance at Atlanta United’s home opener was a singular and affirming experience.

Singular because of the decibel level. This is the loudest environment I have ever been in. Period.

Affirming because I now fully appreciate what people mean when they say, “Sport builds community.”

I was never able to attend a game at Bobby Dodd Stadium, but I knew why people missed it when the team moved to the Benz. There was a certain unbreakable bond forged between those early supporters as they suffered in the sun and long beer lines for the team they loved. Regardless of venue, it’s clear that this team, more than any other in the city of Atlanta, has been the rallying point behind which to grow an organic, engaged, and passionate community.

This is what this team has enabled those in the city who love the sport, and this team, to do. It’s apparent in the supporters’ groups, in the fan blogs, in the employees, in the ownership, and in the team itself.

The beautiful way they play the beautiful game is just a bonus.