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From a Spark to a Forest Fire

Atlanta United’s success isn’t just great for Atlanta, it’s great for US Soccer

MLS: FC Dallas at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

As Josef Martinez finished a superb team goal past a sprawling Andre Blake, 43,006 fans on a Wednesday night stood standing and cheered. An immeasurable amount of people on television expressed jubilation as well. Atlanta United’s numbers this season as an expansion team have broken all kinds of records when it comes to performances and attendance numbers, and they broke the stand alone MLS record attendance with 70,425 people coming to watch the match against Orlando City.

At every turn and at every opportunity, Atlanta United have silenced the doubters, and there have been some notable ones. Taylor Twellman famously doubted Atlanta’s ability to pull a crowd and has been made to eat his words. What Atlanta is doing should be praised to the highest degree. Arthur Blank is leaving other MLS team owners cough cough Robert Kraft cough cough in the dust, and is the hallmark for how to build a club.

I grew up wanting to support a soccer team in the Southeast, but it really wasn’t an option for me and for hundreds of thousands of others as well. We live in college football country, where, “There’s just no way soccer could ever make it there.” The record crowds in Mercedes-Benz would beg to differ. Now all of a sudden, Atlanta United is here, followed by the teams arising in Nashville, Birmingham, and Statesboro. The people in charge of finding new cities to put teams in are finally realizing how great a market the Southeast is, and Atlanta United started that movement.

Atlanta United is the spark that MLS needed to take the league to the next level. For so long, MLS seemed to be stuck in a state of mediocrity and almost complacency with the state of the league. Sure it had rapidly improved since its inception in 1996, but there was still something lacking to really push the boundaries. MLS had almost gotten into a rhythm of complacency, with veteran designated players being the norm. I say that without trying to bring down the obvious impact that players like Frank Lampard and Kaka have had on the growth of this league by bringing awareness and attention to their teams. It really was just time to take the next step.

I’m sure other clubs in the Southeast (See Nashville SC and the new Birmingham USL team) point to Atlanta United as one of the main points that soccer can work in the Southeast. Fire doesn’t stay in one place; it spreads like, well, wildfire. Cities like New York City kept getting teams, and yet there was still an entire region of the country that hadn’t been tapped into.

I grew up playing soccer with very little “fan” presence in the stands. Our team even had a running joke where we would look over to the empty bleachers and move our arms as to pump up the fake, imaginary crowd while yelling, “Let’s go, mom!” (We love our mothers who always came to support us and would drive us countless hours and miles to games all over the Southeast.) We won state my Junior year of high school, and that’s the only game that people really decided to turn up to. We maybe got 20 fans in a little group that would come to our other larger games, but it was still lacking for a school that would bring over 1500 people to a football game on a Friday night. A few years have gone by since I graduated, and now that my little brother is playing I find myself at his games every now and then to a packed bleacher section. The first time I saw this, I was with some of my old teammates, and we were stunned. The game is growing in the Southeast, and Atlanta United is the team reaching the masses. I see Atlanta United jerseys when I walk around my old city in Birmingham, and I get a cheer every now and then when I wear my Atlanta United jersey in Nashville.

In the Southeast, we have some of the pinnacles of success in college football that we look to watch week in, week out. In a way, we are used to winning, whether you are a Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, or Tennessee fan (sorry Vanderbilt.) A team that was brought into MLS from the Southeast had to have that winning mentality, and Arthur Blank and Darren Eales hit the nail on the head. Right from the team’s inception, Atlanta showed initiative to bring in Tata Martino, and younger Designated Players like Miguel Almiron, Tito Villalba, and securing Josef Martinez. We knew we had an exciting team before we even stepped out onto the field for the first time.

My soccer team never liked going to metro Atlanta for tournaments because we knew we would run into some incredibly tough competition, with some rowdy parents, and we never came home with a trophy from Atlanta. The citizens of Atlanta could see how this crowd could transition into the perfect crowd for a professional soccer team, and proved all the doubters wrong. Anyone who still thinks that Atlanta United isn’t for real is just a completely unreasonable human being that has way too much unnecessary negativity in their lives.

It’s not just the Southeast that’s feeling the heat that’s cookin’ in Atlanta, the international recognition that Atlanta United is receiving right now defies expectation. Hearing British people talk up Miguel Almiron is both incredible and terrifying at the same time because I want him to stay as long as possible. (Get well soon, Miggy. We love you!) Taylor Twellman voiced the opinions of a lot of neutrals across the country when he said, “Every week I look at the schedule and say, ‘Who’s Atlanta United playing, and I want to watch ‘em.’” At every turn when something could’ve gone wrong, Atlanta United just keeps getting better and better. With the stadium move, people ended up being nervous about how games at Mercedes-Benz were going to turn out, but those nerves went away with the opening whistle at the Stankonia Dome. Seeing Josef Martinez stare into the distance when he scores hasn’t gotten old, and pictures of Miguel Almiron smiling and giving the camera a thumbs up still makes me smile.

This has been a long love letter to Atlanta United, because I have this team to thank for a lot of things in my life over the past few years as the team has prepared and grown. The Five Stripes have been a huge catalyst for the beautiful game in this country, and to be a part of this is mind-blowing. I never thought I would see this type of reception for this sport in America, and even more so in the Southeast. This has been one forest fire that I don’t want to ever die down, and I’m loving every minute standing in the flames.