By Santino Biscoglia
Photos by Mark Smith Jr.
There is no denying, we love our football here in the South. Now, as summer slowly turns to autumn, the hope and excitement of the prescient NCAA and NFL seasons and the teams we love are upon us.
For thousands of other Southerners, another brand of football is rapidly approaching post-season. These fans have been at it since March: the game day anticipation, the tailgate parties, the away game traveling, the joy of their team winning, the suffering of a loss, the hope of a deep post-season run. Soccer, as we call it in America, has found a new home in the South. Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise, Atlanta United Football Club, has won the hearts and unwavering, enthusiastic support of thousands of die-hard fans in Georgia and around the South.
Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank (a.k.a. “Uncle Arthur” to the Atlanta United faithful) and his staff have built a club that has generated an incredible amount of excitement among fans in just the club’s second year of existence.
Atlanta United shares the beautiful, state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta with NFL team Atlanta Falcons. The stadium was designed to accommodate both football and soccer field configurations. With only the bottom bowl of the stadium’s seating open, most Atlanta United matches have a more intimate, yet intense, atmosphere. With over 36,000 season ticket holders, and a waitlist numbering in the thousands, tickets to Atlanta United home matches are a hot commodity. These games are always sold out with attendance routinely in excess of 45,000.
Occasionally, the entire stadium will be open for MLS matches. A recent match on June 30 against Orlando City Football Club was sold out with the official attendance 71,932. It was announced shortly after this game ended that this was the largest crowd to attend a soccer match in the entire world that day. This is notable as there were also two round-of-16 matches, Argentina vs. France and Uruguay vs. Portugal, earlier the same day in Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. In 2017, Atlanta United set attendance records for MLS for both single matches and total tickets sold in a single season. Being a young club and not given to rest on their laurels, the club has broken their own attendance records more than once.
Atlanta United Manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino is a legend in South American soccer. The 55-year-old Argentine has coached the world-renowned Lionel Messi at both the club (FC Barcelona) and international (Argentina) levels. Tata has managed numerous historic South American clubs and also the Paraguayan men’s national team.
Needless to say, Tata’s Rolodex is extensive and Atlanta United has benefited massively from its manager’s ability to attract young talent from the continent who revere the man for what he has achieved in their area of the world. Adored Atlanta United stars such as Miguel Almirón (Paraguay), Josef Martínez (Venezuela), Leandro González Pirez (Argentina) and Ezequiel Barco (Argentina), to name a few, have had an enormous impact for Atlanta United and are undeniably the base for much of the club’s early success. Additional players include MLS veterans Michael Parkhurst, Darlington Nagbe and Jeff Larentowicz and a young German midfielder named Julian Gressel.
The 5 Stripes, the club’s nickname which references the design on the club’s crest, has taken MLS by storm. In 2017, the first season for the club, the team made the MLS playoffs. This marked the fourth time in MLS history that an expansion team qualified for the playoffs. As of this writing, Atlanta United is atop the Eastern Conference in MLS. Atlanta United plays a fast-paced and exciting style of football that results in plenty of goals to keep the crowd on its feet.
Without a doubt, the crown jewel of Atlanta United is its amazing supporters. Collectively, the supporters are known as the 17s, which signifies the inaugural year of the club’s founding in 2017. The club has reserved the jersey number 17 for their fans and no player will ever wear this jersey number. There are four official club supporters’ groups: Terminus Legion, The Faction, Footie Mob and Resurgence, each bringing their own distinct flavor. These groups are also responsible for the legendary tailgate parties hosted in the parking lot known as the Gulch, which is just outside CNN and Phillips Arena and adjacent to the Mercedes Benz Stadium, every home match day.
What sets the parties in Gulch apart from other tailgate parties is the presentation and execution of these festive and raucous occasions. Each supporters group has its own section of the Gulch in close proximity to one another, where food and drink are enjoyed, kids play soccer on mini-fields, smoke grenades are lit, music blares and songs are sung for the distinct purpose of getting the fans ready for the match. Additionally, the cost to participate in the food and drink offered at each of these tailgates is free to cheap. Plus, portions of the proceeds are donated to worthy local charitable organizations.
Ninety minutes before kickoff, fans gather in the Gulch to march into the stadium where the party intensifies. “Rowdy and Proud,” as the saying goes, once inside the stadium, supporters wave enormous flags, bang drums, yell banter toward the opposing team and their supporters, and belt out songs or chants that can be heard, to a sometimes deafening level, the entire match.
One of many notable characteristics of this club’s supporters is the diversity of fans united together to cheer the 5 Stripes on to victory. If you can think of a demographic that exists in Georgia, it is represented in Mercedes Benz on a match day. Every race, color, age, nationality, orientation, lifelong soccer fans as well as first-timers, are on their feet for the entire 90 minutes singing all of the crowds’ favorite songs including “We are The A” and “Vamos, Vamos ATL.”
So, football is no longer just a fall sport in Atlanta and across the south. Atlanta and its new soccer team, Atlanta United Football Club, have shown that sports fans can get their fill of traditional game day festivities and pulsating on-field action virtually all year long regardless of the shape of the ball.