Breaking the rules of soccer won Atlanta United games, fans, respect, and the championship.
Teammates Julian Gressel (left) and Kevin Kratz (right) celebrate MLS championship victory.
America doesn’t care about soccer. Expansion teams never win championships. And they certainly don’t shatter attendance records. Atlanta United broke each of these rules, one by one. But what happens when a post-championship hangover hits a city of fickle sports fans?
When he was first starting out as president of Atlanta United FC, the upstart expansion team being forged from scratch in 2014 by American businessman Arthur Blank, Darren Eales was given one warning about sports in the south. Atlanta, he was told, is a city of fickle sports fans.
After all, this was the city that sent the NHL packing after just over a decade. And hockey at least enjoys a higher profile on SportsCenter than soccer, which has struggled at times to gain a foothold in America.
“What people said was a weakness is a strength. We are a city that’s young and growing, with a lot of transplants. People bring their teams from other places,” said Eales. “So people coming to Atlanta have their dirty secret, whether they’re a Green Bay Packers fan or a (Boston) Celtics fan or a Chicago Bulls fan, but then Atlanta United’s their team to show pride in their city.”
Of course, he admits, it helps raise a team’s profile and cement fan support when they win an MLS championship in just their second year. Those first two years saw a groundswell of fan support seemingly built overnight, breaking attendance records and launching the team into the stratosphere of well-known names like AC Milan, Chelsea and Manchester City.
“Thinking back to when Arthur Blank hired me… originally we were thinking we’d use the lower bowl at Mercedes-Benz stadium, which seats 29,000,” said Eales. “By the time we kicked off we had more season ticket holders than that.”
And then came the dreaded post-championship hangover, fueled by personnel changes including their coach and top player.
“Everyone knows our Game of Thrones analogy – it’s easier to sit on the Iron Throne than it is to stay on the Iron Throne,” said Eales “Everyone’s out to get you. If you look at the past five years of MLS cup champions, everyone’s got off to a slow start.”
Atlanta United’s President, Darren Eales, celebrates with Hector Villalba.
The knives came out, with local media prematurely calling the party over on Atlanta United’s seemingly instantaneous popularity. “When you’re a team that matters, everyone has an opinion,” said Eales. “Which is great.”
But like any businessman, Eales put his head down and continued forward, despite a slow start. He still visited the rowdy tailgaters out front before every match, he still joined in the chants, and after a few huge road wins (at press time they’d won three of the last four, including a 3-0 shellacking of Sporting KC on the road) even the local media was asking, “Is Atlanta United Back?”
If you ask the fans, they never left.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan hoists the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy with teammates.
“Soccer’s different from other sports. The supporter culture is an important part of the atmosphere. They don’t sit, they stand in the supporters’ section,” said Eales. It’s proved to be an important part of Atlanta United’s DNA. From specially designed retractable seating to the famed capo stands, Atlanta United was designed from the ground up for the fans. “We were really able to engage with the fans from the start. That’s created a real sense of ownership.”
By the Numbers
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