As a fun Family Weekend activity and a birthday present, I had the opportunity to attend a soccer match with my family between Atlanta United FC and the team I support, Toronto FC. The match was the last of the regular season, and both teams had something to play for; Atlanta United could score a bye in the first round of the playoffs, while Toronto could achieve the highest ever point-tally in Major League Soccer (MLS) history. The atmosphere truly reflected the importance of the game, with over 71,000 people showing up to watch (an MLS attendance record). The passion of the fans and the amount of noise made it pretty uncomfortable to cheer for the away team.
The match took place in the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which Atlanta United share with the Atlanta Falcons. The stadium is located just southwest of Centennial Olympic Park, close to the center of downtown Atlanta. This causes a lot of traffic before and after their games, but we didn’t really have a problem getting out. The unique shape of the stadium makes it stand out in the downtown area. All the noise coming from the area also draws lots of attention. I found that all of the stadium staff were very efficient and friendly. We never really had to wait in a line, despite there being 70,000 other people there.
In order to get to our seats, we had to walk past the tunnel where they players enter the field from. Fans of Atlanta United were lined up along the sides, waiting for their heroes to come out. As the players came out of the dressing room, they jogged down the tunnel and high-fived all the fans who stuck their hands out. After the players were on the field, we got to watch them warm up from the field-side and then took our seats. We just so happened to be sandwiched between Atlanta United fans, but from looking around the stadium I could tell that they were everywhere. I was only able to find a few other Toronto supporters during the match.
Before the game started, Atlanta United displayed their tradition of taking a golden spike, signed by fans of the team, and hitting it with a sledgehammer as the fans spell the name of the team. This match, the honours of hitting the spike were given to Atlanta recording artist 2 Chainz. Afterwards, the anthem was sung by another Atlanta recording artist, CeeLo Green. As the match started, everyone remained on their feet and did not sit for the entire 90 minutes. The energy in the stadium was truly unmatchable by any other team in MLS.
The match was very even throughout and ended in a 2-2 draw. While both teams were hoping to win, a draw suited Toronto just fine – they achieved the most ever points in MLS history with 69 (20W-9D-5L). However, because Atlanta did not win, they were unable to move into second place, so they must play in a knockout game against Columbus Crew S.C. in order to stay alive in the playoffs. Tickets to this game are already practically sold out, as fans of the team are very excited to see Atlanta United in the playoffs in their inaugural season.
Following the MLS and keeping an eye on Atlanta United has made me think about one question: How are Atlanta United so successful? There has to be an explanation to how they can get over 70,000 people to come to a game. There are a few reasons, and combined it all makes perfect sense.
The first reason is undoubtedly the success. There is no way that the team would have so many fans without it doing well in the league. The owner of the team, Arthur Blank, invested lots of money from the get-go in order to start the franchise on a high note. Atlanta brought in talented players from across South America and a coach who understood what the fans want to see. The result is an exciting team that plays fast-paced, interesting soccer that the fans love to watch. When the supporters see their team doing well, it reinforces their pride and makes them feel happy. Atlanta were excited when they got their team, and the success that they’ve had in their first year has kept that excitement going.
A deeper reason why that many people come out is that it is a team of the people. The team name, Atlanta United really means that it is a medium to unite everyone in the city. Having the word united in the name has special significance to the supporters, as it makes them feel that they are just as big a part of the club as anyone else. Not only that, but Atlanta is a city on the rise with lots of young people. This club is something that they feel they can take and make theirs. This leads to the creation of supporters groups, who sit together, chant together, and… support together.
The supporter groups have really done a great job of getting people to join in and support their club. To quote an interview done by Copa90, “Hip-hop was the lubricant to bring people in who are newbies and show them a good time”. The interview showed the various things the supporter groups do to lure people in to joining. These include playing hip-hop music, tailgating, and creating tifos, which are large displays that the fans hold up to show support for the club.
Overall, Atlanta United F.C. is a successful franchise on many levels. The success of the team as well as the fans is really something special. However, it will be worthwhile to see how they do in the playoffs, and if the hype will last from season to season.
Copa90 interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXNuVz4EFUc
Match highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffZxa7JLmnw