(WFI) For the first time since 1995, top flight soccer is back in Atlanta.
Atlanta welcomed its new Major League Soccer franchise with open arms on Sunday. World Football INSIDER was one of more than 55,000 fans that ventured to Bobby Dodd Stadium at historic Grant Field on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus to watch Atlanta United play its first regular season game. The same campus was home to the Olympic Village for the 1996 Olympic Games.
Later this year, Atlanta United will begin play at the newly constructed Mercedez-Benz Stadium, which is replacing another Olympic venue in the Georgia Dome.
For MLS, the groundswell of fan support justified the league’s decision to award an expansion franchise to Atlanta in 2014. For those in attendance it provided a once in a lifetime experience full of energy and excitement. For some fans, it was the culmination of support for a fractured, sometimes underground, soccer scene in the city.
Jason Longshore, 40, is part of the radio announcing crew for Atlanta United, and an avid soccer fan in Atlanta. He recalled to WFI struggling to get bars to play nationally-televised MLS games in 1996, and travelling to a Salvadoran pool hall in the city to watch a U.S. Men’s National Team World Cup qualifier. Now, the city has soccer fever, with a foundation to support it for years to come.
“It’s been such a long build-up, and for those of us who were engaged in the Atlanta soccer community before this, it seemed like it would never get here,” Longshore said ahead of the match. “The club has made the right moves in the build-up of the franchise and the city and region have responded in kind. I didn’t expect this much of a reaction from the community this quickly, but I didn’t expect some of the huge investments that the club has made either.
“I feel like the club has done everything possible to avoid losing the excitement.”
Atlanta has spent aggressively on young impact players from South America, marketing itself as a global team. Management has said the team aims to be the first expansion franchise since 2009 to make the playoffs in its debut year. The club’s first head coach, Gerardo Martino, managed FC Barcelona and the Argentina National Team before signing on with Atlanta United. The club’s President Darren Eales served as executive director of Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur before joining MLS.
The opening match was not without controversy. Atlanta United fell 2-1 to the New York Red Bulls after giving up two late goals, along with fans chiding the refereeing crew. In addition, large sections of fans used a homophobic chant, used most often by fans at Mexican National Team matches. The club quickly came out against the fans, issuing a statement saying it “does not support or condone the use of offensive language.”
“Fans found to be participating in this behavior will be subject to removal from the building,” the statement said.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber attended the match, but unfortunately arrived late due to notorious Atlanta traffic. The commissioner told reporters present at halftime that he was “speechless” at the match atmosphere, a word he says he doesn’t use often.
“This is an absolutely incredible statement of the vision and commitment that [team owner] Arthur [Blank] and his family have to this city, to the sport of soccer and to Major League Soccer.”
By INSIDER Aaron Bauer
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