The Atlanta United Experience is one you should be invested in
As an arbitrary and casual follower of MLS (the European game has my attention more), I never would have thought that the beautiful game of soccer would take off in Atlanta and become the epicenter of American professional soccer.
But it has… and that’s probably an understatement.
The prospect of soccer emerging into a sensation for Atlantans seemed bleak at best but to think of that observation in those terms now, is to be totally out of touch with the infatuation sports enthusiasts have with the game of fútbol in Atlanta. The soccer scene has grown exponentially in Atlanta, a rarity in a metropolitan or notable city in the South Regional part of the U.S., where football (you know the sport where they play in pads and wear helmets) and the South are synonymous with one another.
Well, football can move over because soccer is officially the hottest sport in the ATL right now and that’s all because of the MLS’ Atlanta United, not just the most exciting club in major league soccer but also home to the finest gameday experience in the entire league in 2018.
The club made an immediate splash in its inaugural campaign in 2017 (broke MLS attendance records in the first season and sold a reported 886,623 tickets in all), yet 2018 has turned out to be even better attendance wise and on-the-field (The United finished fourth in the Eastern Conference standings last year with a 15 wins-9 losses-10 draws mark and were beaten in the knockout round). The United have been setting attendance records all year long in jumbo Mercedes Benz-Stadium that can hold somewhere up to 73,000 for a soccer match.
On Saturday June 30, on a day when the World Cup was pumping out two massive Round of 16 games between France-Argentina and Portugal-Uruguay that both involved the two greatest soccer players on earth in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Atlanta United stole all the attention. All eyes were seemingly on the World Cup, yet there was 71,932 people who attended Atlanta’s 4–0 home win over Orlando City, which was the biggest soccer crowd in the world on that Saturday and even topped both World Cup games, with neither match hosting 45,000 fans. I was there… and it was a glorious experience.
Let’s just say, that’s a real big deal.
The club amped it up even more on Sunday July 15 in their 1–1 draw against the Seattle Sounders, where they set the record for the largest single game crowd (72,243) and the fifth largest regular season crowd in MLS history. I never would have thought that Atlanta would embrace soccer the way they have and it’s both amazing and surprising to me. It’s a new found culture that Atlanta sports fans have latched onto. Go to an Atlanta United match and your be sure to see people of all races including blacks, whites, hispanics, asians, old and young people showing up at the games.
If you happen to ride the MARTA to the games, like most fans usually do, you will see nothing but a sea of fans decked out in red, black and gold getup full of anticipation. One fan yells “A-T-L” and next thing you know, numerous of fans are chanting it. This goes on about three times per match. ATL Pride at its best.
Get to the front of the Mercedes-Benz entrance and it looks and feels like a jamboree taking place. Once you step foot inside the stadium, just take the chance to gaze at the hosting site of Super Bowl 53 and soak in the sheer enormity of the two million dollar square-foot mansion, and you will see that this place was built for the sport of soccer. Maybe even more so than the city’s beloved football. Try catching a match when the retractable roof is open, then the scene only gets more intoxicating.
To speak of the fans full investment in the club, social media tweets and Instagram posts flood the video screen throughout matches as the franchise show photos of exuberant United fans with family and friends at the game, that exhibits the passion they have for the club.
Want delicious food while watching the action, you won’t be disappointed with what Mercedes-Benz has to offer. Want a burger, try the Farm Burger (Georgia grass-fed beef and white cheddar) at $9. The Hot-lanta Nashville Fried Chicken Biscuit and Chicken Fried Burger are sure to fill you up.
How about something for the healthy eaters? Try the Hummus and Organic Veggies at only $6.
If you’re in the mood for hot dogs, the Iberian Pig might be the closest thing to it and it actually tastes better. It’s not your typical stadium hot dog but it comes wrapped in bacon, doused in some kind of cheese sauce, along with fried shallots and spicy red pepper aioli. Looks and tastes like a winner. However my personal favorite is the Mac’N Chesse with the choice of pulled pork or chicken stuffed inside it. Can’t go wrong there.
If that’s not enough to brighten the Atlanta United experience, I introduce to you the gameday tradition Atlanta started launching last season in the Golden Spike, which takes place minutes before each home match in the supporters section. It’s made to stand for unity and strength and is geared to show respect to the city of Atlanta’s history involving railroads when they were the central method of transportation in the 1800s.
The lucky individual who gets the opportunity to hammer the Golden Spike into the railroad platform — that sounds like drums being played in a scene in a film right before a warrior-like character takes off for an epic mission or is about to be staged in a ferocious fight of some sort — is usually a ATL homegrown celebrity. One aspect of Atlanta that’s been the lifeblood of the city for three decades now has surely been Southern Hip-Hop music, where the likes of Outkast, Ludacris, T.I. and Young Jeezy have been at the vanguard of the movement. Yet, it also serves as the hotspot for rappers who have come out in waves to support the club since the very first match last season.
Reveling in the pre-game fun has been rappers 2 Chainz and Waka Flocka, who are both diehard United followers, Young Joc and Rich Homie Quan. Athletes such as Atlanta Falcons Vic Beasley, WNBA’s Atlanta Dream’s Tiffany Hayes, former Atlanta Hawks player Dennis Schroder, current Hawks player John Collins, Hawks newly drafted rookie Trae Young and former Atlanta Braves great Andrew Jones have even got into the Golden Spike tradition over the course of these two seasons.
On the pitch, Atlanta has proven match after match that they are the best show in all of major league soccer. Second-year manager Tata Martino, a native of Rosario, Argentina, who has managed soccer powers such as Barcelona for the 2013–2014 season and the Argentina national team from 2014 to 2016 (led Argentina to the 2014 World Cup final) has brought his European background to his American club and much of the success of this 2018 edition of the Atlanta United can simply be traced back to Tata. Martino prefers his clubs to play attack-minded football with fast pace and quick, reactive passing that should create plenty of scoring chances, as well as initiating from playing out the back.
In order for any manager or coach to infuse his style of play into his team, one must have the required personnel to work with and Martino fittingly has that in this year’s United. Atlanta currently sits tied atop not just the Eastern Conference standings but the entire league with 16 victories, the points leader at 54 and the fewest amount of losses (four). What makes them arguably the best MLS squad this year is clearly their attacking methods led by the supreme duo of Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron and Venezuelan forward Josef Martinez.
When these two are clicking and on the same page, the United are a problem for any defence because at any moment there on the counterattack when you least expect it. The United usually operate in a 4–1–4–1 setup with the dominate left-footed Almiron operating near the central mid area as well as on the right flank where he makes his standard vertical runs in midfield and forces defenses to react to his swift movement, pushing the action up the pitch and delivering on either a deep strike or a perfectly accurate pass to his wingers or in most cases to Martinez, the likely 2018 MLS MVP winner.
The 24-year-old Almiron (nine goals, 11 assists-tied for fourth in the league this season) has developed somewhat of a symbiotic relationship with Martinez, where both players seem to see the same thing when a build-up of a play is about to take place. Martinez, who stands at 5’ 7”, might be the most entertaining player in the league right now, with L.A. Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic sitting in a close second, in my view.
Playing in the No. 9 role, the 25-year-old plays his role to perfection with his instinctive poaching abilities in the box, slick movement in the final third, excellent speed, makes great runs, finds space in the box to maneuver in position to score, and is an ace on crossing opportunities and set pieces. Martinez has all the traits of a true striker and Atlanta fans have definitely taken notice, as the Venezuelan has become a crowd favorite.
Not only has Martinez been the United’s most reliable force but it seems like he sets a new scoring record every week. His league-leading 28 goals so far, are the most ever in a single season. Listening how loud the home crowd gets whenever Martinez scores, you would think it was a Falcons game going on but it’s the delightment fans have for the thrills he brings to the game. The cheers begin to crescendo whenever he puts the ball in the back of the net.
He’s currently on a nine-match consecutive streak where he’s scored a goal, a MLS record. In July, he set the single-season record for the most hat tricks (six). If your wondering if his goal scoring is conducive to winning matches, the United are 14W-1D-4L when his scores a goal. Atlanta has also scored the most goals of any club this season (55).
Asked what his thoughts were after the Orlando City match last Friday when he broke the MLS scoring record, Martinez replied, “Very special. I’m happy with where we came to play. I’m very happy because like I said last week, if I reached 28, I would be very happy, happier than ever. I’m happy to get the record and the three points.”
To compliment the star combo, you have midfielders Ezequiel Barco, Julian Gressel, Hector Villalba, defenders Michael Parkhurst (team captain), Eric Remedi and goalie Brad Guzan who have been instrumental in the club’s winning ways. Watching from the media press box during the United’s 3–1 victory over the Columbus Crew about a week ago, one reporter blurted out that “The Atlanta United are like watching the Golden State Warriors, only without the championships but they might get one this year.”
There’s some accuracy in that statement.
The only southern city where the adrenaline and spirit for soccer is as high as it is in Atlanta, has to be Miami, where ideally enough will be getting a soccer franchise in the near future. That budding energy Atlanta has for soccer can be echoed back to earlier this year when the city of Atlanta built a soccer field called “Station Soccer” on the top floor at Five Points Station, the MARTA train stop in Atlanta, for inner-city boys and girls youths of all races and cultures to get the opportunity to experience the beauty of the game in a more accessible fashion. If kids are worried about not being able to get a run in on that one field, don’t fret because the city plans on constructing nine more soccer fields at different city metro stations over the next few years. Even the youths can’t get enough of this game in the Dirty South.
We are in a new epoch in Atlanta sports. A new club is here. A new rooting interest has arised other than the Braves and Falcons and this is now a town starving for the most global sport in the world.
The Atlanta United are the Buzz of MLS and come December, just might be holding the 2018 MLS Cup. Best to jump on board for the ride now, while the train is still going.