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From the Supporters’ Section: The ‘fun’ is back at Atlanta United

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After several bleak years, things are returning to normal in Atlanta.

Five Stripes on the capo stand with fans after the win against D.C.
@ATLUTD Twitter

I spent this past Saturday in Atlanta to enjoy the game against D.C. United, and it was my first time there since we drew the Red Bulls 3-3 in 2019. Y’all, if I had the financial ability I’d be at every single game, that just isn’t my reality right now as much as I wish it was. I wanted to see how the vibe has changed since the club took a step back and realized it had lost its way over the past two years.

I looked at it the same way you would when you see a person you haven’t seen in two years. If you saw them every day during that span, you wouldn’t notice a difference. Things have changed so much since I was last at the Benz that I felt I could provide a more accurate measurement of the current Atlanta United compared to when we were still riding the immense high of MLS Cup 2018.

That video was taken prior to the start of the game, well before the seats were full. But the energy? It was there, and it just felt right. The supporters were so rowdy that a large group of us standing in the supporter’s section didn’t even realize when D.C. scored their first goal. The noise just kept getting louder. And looking out across that stadium during the match, not before or at halftime when people aren’t in their seats, was euphoric. Hearing the crowd roar back “United” after we called out “Atlanta” was chilling, and it was clear the fans, all of them, were right back in the thick of it. The chants were loud, they were continuous, and the whole stadium got involved. I got hit in the head by someone’s full beer cup after Barco’s free kick golazo, and it was glorious. In fact, I spoke with multiple people who said that match was the most fun they’ve had in a very, very long time. Others said it felt like old times. But guess what...it was fun.

This D.C. match is just the latest in what feels like a revival of the whole club, not just a run of good form for the players. This one, though, had a bit of a cherry on top after the whistle blew for full-time.

Go read the replies to that tweet when you get a moment. I actually hadn’t viewed them until I’d written almost this entire article and I went to embed the post. I’m not writing this piece because I’m making something up, I’m trying to echo the feelings of thousands of Atlanta United faithful, and seeing things like this...it is fun. Not just for the fans, but clearly for the players, too. They climbed up to the capo stand and the line between million-dollar player and supporter just trying to enjoy a game became nonexistent. At that moment, we were all Atlanta United again. It felt like the club wasn’t separated anymore, it felt like everyone was home again. It was, quite literally, one of my favorite Five Stripes moments.

So what all has changed in the two months since Heinze was relieved of his duties? What brought all of this change? We could all sit here and debate how the team finally has true guidance and coaching, and all of that would be true, except for the fact that Atlanta started its current run of form playing street ball with Rob Valentino. And the nuances between a 3-4-3 and a 4-2-3-1 didn’t put almost every single Atlanta player into the mingle of a rowdy supporter’s section. Nope, the simple answer here: Fun and tradition. It’s from making the work fun while building on the club traditions that were set in stone, both of which combine to form Atlanta’s identity. You can see a glimpse into the results of that effort below:

Those guys are having fun. Some people confuse that with meaning they’re not working hard, and those people would be absolutely incorrect. Those were quick examples of the atmosphere surrounding the club as Valentino handed the reigns to Gonzalo Pineda. It was almost like the smiles and enjoyment were instant the moment Valentino brought back fun. It was infectious, and it showed all around the club. Around that time is when we started seeing some of this:

So again, what happened after Gabriel Heinze left? The club, from top to bottom, took a step back, reflected on all of the mistakes and misses since December 9, 2018, and remembered what we’re all here for. Fun, tradition, community.

Sure, someone could chalk up all of those tweets above simply to a rejuvenated social media department that got set free after Heinze’s departure. But, t isn’t just Atlanta’s social media that’s exploding. The fans are right back in the thick of it. Granted, give credit to the social media folks at Atlanta United, they’re doing outstanding now, but they’re simply an ingredient in the bigger meal that is the Five Stripes. They’re just documenting what’s happening. Just like the players, the club as a whole has been unshackled. Everyone at the club has embraced the fun, attacking soccer Atlanta was founded on.

When Gonzalo Pineda arrived, he walked in and made it a point to meet the entire club, and I mean everyone. He wanted the cooks, the groundskeepers, the financial folks, and the supporters to know that he cared about them and what they mean to Atlanta United as a whole. He implemented fun, purposeful training sessions using the team he had, not the one he wished he had. And besides one loss in the midst of the changes surrounding his arrival, he continued winning. It clearly wasn’t the victories that caused the fun, there weren’t many of those before Rob and Gonzo took over. It was the fun that caused the winning, because an entire community felt like it had been revitalized by a club-wide paradigm shift.

Atlanta United went on a three game stretch over the past week and scored ten goals, many of which were absolute golazos and set pieces, and neither of which were happening very often before the change. Prior to that, it had taken a month to score that many goals. The camaraderie amongst players is back, which was a part of the heart and soul of the team that felt sorely lacking. Before, it felt like they had been treated like machines by coaches who didn’t fully grasp what Atlanta United is. Now, players are developing relationships off the field, and it’s showing on the field. They want to fight for each other, and they want to fight for this city.

Pineda and Darren Eales further solidified that relationship Tuesday morning when they allowed some members of Atlanta’s supporter groups to attend training. And again giving credit where it’s due, supposedly this was a front office decision that Gonzo immediately jumped all over. Fans got to march all the way into the training ground and watch the team practice, take pictures, and beg Darren Eales to take an early-morning Malibu shot.

The goal is for this to become an ongoing tradition, so what the club is effectively saying is that they understand this team works better when the relationship, the connection, and the camaraderie is there. Sure, the road after 2018 was paved with absolutely great intentions, but none of the changes and shifts are ever worth it if we lose our identity.

I’ll end with this. I’ll be the first one to criticize decisions that have been made with personnel brought to this club after 2018, because I love Atlanta United and I want it to be the absolute best. But I think very highly of Darren Eales, and though we’ve (obviously) never met, his funny personality and savvy business sense fit well here in Atlanta. These recent changes and additions have rediscovered that lightning in a bottle, that identity. Perhaps one day he’ll read this and, if he doesn’t already, see clearly how important that identity is to this city and this club. We’re going to win, we’re going to lose, it’s a game, we get it. But this road we’re on now doesn’t just feel like a collective sigh of relief from every Atlanta fan anymore. It’s so much more than that. The fans have felt like the club was the prodigal son, and he’s finally returned home. We were here all along, ready to just...go have fun.