The First Game

My experience with Atlanta’s newest team, their motivated players, and some dedicated fans as the MLS’ 2017 season kicked off.

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Fans signed the golden spike, meant as a symbol of Atlanta’s railroad history, before the game. (Photo by Graham Cattanach)

I, like many soccer fans in the Metro Atlanta area, have been following the progress of Atlanta United FC for quite some time.

A crowd of thousands was clumped around Gate Seven, slowly pressing forward to try to get in before the imminent kickoff.

So there were moments from the Sunday, March 5 opener at Bobby Dodd Stadium that seemed a bit surreal for me.

For most of the temperate day, tailgaters dressed in their Atlanta United gear hung out in bars and on stretches of green around the stadium began to make their way to the stadium.

Walking through Georgia Tech’s campus, we (my brother, dad, and I) joined bigger and bigger streams of people going in the same direction, until reaching a lake of red, black, and gold pooled around Gate seven.

Most established soccer clubs in Europe and elsewhere have fan songs and chants which have been written and committed to memory by club faithful over time. So I was surprised to see in the matchday program that there were lyrics for chants prepared ahead of time by Atlanta United’s supporter groups.

Members of the Terminus Legion and Resurgence Atlanta, groups which started even before the franchise had decided on a name, rolled out a giant flag, called a “tifo,” before the opening kickoff. (Photo by Graham Cattanach)

Speaking of the budding franchise’s fan groups, several of them were audibly and visibly present at the match. I could hear their chants from one section over for the entirety of the match.

The night’s first real chant seemed to embody the crowd’s avid spirit, as a few lines of “We ready! We ready!” echoed around Bobby Dodd in the moments before kickoff. Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez tapped the ball back to his midfield, and, to cheers and applause, Atlanta United was officially inaugurated into the MLS.

From kickoff to the end of the first half, almost no one was in their seat. Chants of “A-T-L!” and “Ole!” boomed through the stadium every few minutes.

The century-old stadium reached its peak decibel level in the 25th minute, when left attacking midfielder Yamil Asad met Tyrone Mears’ cross at the New York Red Bulls’ back post and sent it home. Asad led the team over to the corner where I was and celebrated with the fans.

After a few seconds of yelling and jumping and clapping with the rest of the sellout crowd, I stood in place, smiling, hands over my head. ‘This is actually happening,’ I thought. ‘We finally have a team to root for, and they’re good.’

Atlanta United kept the pressure on Red Bulls for the remainder of the first half, with Martinez forcing New York’s keeper, Luis Robles, to make a reactionary save near the end of the half. The red and black went into the locker room with cheers from their ecstatic fans, and I got to sit down for the first time in 45 minutes.

The sellout crowd of 55, 297 people was riled up all night, protesting the referee’s unfavorable decisions and cheering Atlanta’s recurring efforts on goal.

The home side came out strong in the second half, which surprised me a bit. The crowd rose in anticipation when starlet Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron sprinted ahead on the counterattack with no one in front of him except for Robles. But home supporters were let down when the goalie snagged Almiron’s chip shot from its graceful arc.

This miss seemed like somewhat of a turning point. Atlanta United displayed real effort for the first 15 minutes of the second half, but after the hour mark play became more balanced. As Atlanta got less and less of their dangerous counterattacking runs and New York put more pressure on goalie Alec Kann (who, by the way, was born in Decatur), I got worried that the visitors would equalize.

World-renowned coach Tata Martino didn’t make any substitutions during this nervous time, when Atlanta was in desperate need of fresh legs. New York continued to create good chances, and gained a corner kick on the left side in the 76th minute.

“I don’t feel good about the way things are going,” I told my dad.

Red Bulls midfielder Daniel Royer headed the ball in seconds later, as the crowd went quiet, only amplifying the small contingent of away fans opposite from where I sat.

The second goal followed six minutes after, the result of a clumsy mistake by substitute defender Anton Walkes. Atlanta’s comeback attempt was set back by a red card to midfielder Carlos Carmona, which I thought he was undeserving of, and a couple more unfavorable calls from the referees. These decisions earned them the customary boos and chants of “ref you suck” as stoppage time dwindled down and the game ended.

Fans filed out disappointed with the outcome, especially as Atlanta had dominated the majority of the game, but also excited about the promise that the young team showed.

The game didn’t play out as the red and black would have wanted, but I saw the game as a whole as a success. A team in its first ever game played better than a perennial title contender, earning its goal but getting caught defending poorly, as most teams do.

Players showed ambition and played with desire, especially Martinez, who was on every ball up front giving his all, and it nearly paid off a few times.

I found out the next day that the crowd at Bobby Dodd was the fourth largest attendance in the world that weekend, behind major clubs in Barcelona, Spain, Dortmund, Germany and Manchester, England. That surprised me, but so did most things about the rookie fan base’s enthusiasm on this day to remember.

Atlanta’s speedy style paid off in their second game, away in Minneapolis, as they thrashed Minnesota United 6-1. After their second home game against Chicago Fire on Saturday, March 18, which the won convincingly 4-0, the future’s looking bright for the red and black and their already devoted supporters.