What Atlanta United FC means (and doesn’t mean) for American soccer culture in 2017

ATLANTA – The young man reclined in a wooden rocking chair by the front door of the Kappa Alpha fraternity house, sipping his beer (a Bud Light from the looks of it, though impossible to say for sure as it was covered in a camouflage koozie). He nodded at the people walking by. Noticing a bit of something on one of his worn cowboy boots, he reached down and flicked it off. Another sip. A friend bounded out of the front door of the fraternity house and motioned for him to get up. It was time.

The young man stood, surveyed the crowd in front of him, and adjusted his Atlanta United FC scarf.

The match was about to start.

Atlanta United FC played its inaugural match on Sunday, a frenetic 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls played in Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta. The product on the field was thrilling for a casual MLS observer. The club has brought in Argentinian manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, previously of Barcelona, to build an exciting, young, attacking side, and even in the first game it’s clear he’s done just that. United was all out from the first whistle, routinely sending five, six, seven, eight (!) attackers forward, trying to find a goal. They thoroughly outplayed Red Bulls for the first 70 minutes of the match, then faltered late, giving up two goals and giving Atlanta sports fans yet another blown lead to grumble about.

And there were fans there. There were a lot of fans there. Fifty-five thousand turned up at a sold-out Bobby Dodd Stadium, packing the place with more people than any Georgia Tech football game this past season. These masses were not just there to take in the first game. The team says it’s already sold 30,000 season tickets for this inaugural year, something most MLS clubs would sacrifice a few outside midfielders for.

The fans were there, yes. But what were they? Were they good fans, whatever that means? Were they typical American fans? Typical Atlanta fans? To get at the heart of that question, to try and answer it, you need to consider the state of American soccer fandom in 2017.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

We, the American soccer media and fans themselves, all want different things from ourselves, the collective. I’d argue we demand more of American soccer fans at times than we do of American soccer players. We want our fans to be unique and sophisticated and smart, and we want them to be different than those mainstream NFL fans (we’d never say this out loud, but it’s true). At the same time, we are embarrassed when American fans posture and steal from European fans too blatantly, even though deep down, I think, we all sort of want them to imitate those fans, just only in the right way. It’s a lot, these demands, I guess is what I’m trying to say here, and these wishes are as contradictory and messy as the crowd outside the game Sunday, a crowd that refused to conform to any one idea.

There is no easy way to categorize the Atlanta United FC fan, no 15-second marketing profile I can hit you with on the sort of person at this game. All of Atlanta was there, throwing the type of party that Atlanta throws so well. This was a good old-fashioned tailgate before a sporting event, and people in Atlanta tailgate better than I’d guess you do just about anything.

As someone who spent a couple summers growing up in Spain and Scotland playing soccer and then went to college in Louisiana, the whole day took on a dreamlike quality, as the many disparate threads of my life became tangled up in front of me in a not unpleasant way. Yes, there was some of the embarrassing Anglophilic posturing you’ll find at any American soccer match, the derivative English chants – Who are ya! Who are ya! – but there was also something beautifully and unapologetically Southern about the crowd gathered at Bobby Dodd Stadium: That young man at the KA house, layering a soccer scarf over an Arc’teryx vest. The Georgia Tech tailgate a few blocks away at the Fifth Street Bridge, during which I saw a 2-v-2 soccer game played between two young Latino kids and a guy and girl in their 20s interrupted briefly by a pretty blonde woman who implored everyone to come over to her tent “because y’all we just have too much food.”

At another tent, a young man handed out large plastic bags, explaining that if they all collected and recycled three million cans this year, an organization was going to then donate a house to people in need. A Georgia Tech business school student asked if that three-million-can thing there was a challenge and cracked his beer. “I always did like a challenge,” he said.

It was familiar, sweet, friendly. It felt like home. Every tent would send envoys over to other tents, introduce themselves, explain that people just needed to come over to their tent to have some food and beer because there was just too much food and beer, an endless circle of Southern hospitality that would only ever be stopped by the first whistle.

There were diehard fans, yes, and also people there just to take it all in. Atlanta was gathering, and they wanted to be a part of it. A few fans asked me about the team, telling me they heard they were gonna be pretty good, but didn’t know for sure. I tried to explain the MLS salary structure to another group and we all decided pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen. For many of the fans, yes, it was simply an event.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

But it wasn’t just the cultural voyeurs, the local folks there to shout for the team in the home colors. There was a knowledge with many of these fans, a sophistication that frankly I wasn’t expecting. Early in the first half, before he was sent off late for a stupid red card, United FC’s 30-year-old Chilean midfielder Carlos Carmona played himself into a bit of trouble with a poor first touch in his own half. Two Red Bulls players descended upon him, but he recovered well, used his body to shield the ball, got a touch away, and then played a pass out of pressure to the team’s opposite outside back. It was a nothing moment, maybe a second and a half in length, but the United faithful recognized it and applauded it warmly.

For those “serious” soccer fans out there, which I’m assuming you must be to have trudged this far into an article about the authenticity of soccer fandom in Atlanta, this action may seem obvious. But I’ve been to a lot of USMNT, USWNT and MLS games in this country, and I can tell you applauding a play like that is not always there. This was not the behavior of scarf-wearing noobs who flew in for the spectacle of a soccer game as something to do until Falcons training camp. This was the behavior of [gulp … please forgive me for saying this] proper football fans.

It also needs to be said that some of these Atlanta fans behaved despicably during the game. The much maligned and homophobic “p*to” chant has made its way to Atlanta, chanted at the opposing goalkeeper during goal kicks. After a late red card was given and United ended the match with a loss, some fans pelted referee Mark Geiger with trash as he exited the field. They were blemishes on what should have been a perfect day.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For those diehard soccer fans in Atlanta, the day bordered on unbelievable.

“It’s an amazing feeling to see everyone out here and know that there’s a community like this for soccer,” said Ashneel Ali, a project manager wearing an afro wig and who, along with his friends, had brought a generator to the Fifth Street Bridge tailgate in order to run a TV and video game console to play FIFA. “I never knew this was out here.”

I asked him what he sees as the breakdown between knowledgeable soccer fans and people just here for a party.

“I don’t think it matters. As long as you’re behind soccer in general … I don’t care if you’re here to just drink and hang out and take in the game, or if you’re here because you truly care. As long as you’re here to support the team, I think that’s what’s really important. Soccer is getting the attention it needs.”

Ashneel Ali (Photo by Nate Scott, FoxSports.com)

He’s right, of course. These fans don’t need to prove anything, as long as they show up. And all of this – the sorority girls in sundresses, the Latino fans juggling outside in the parking lot, the big white burly men in camo, the homophobic chants, the thrown trash – is disparate, messy, and of course exposes the deep lie at the heart of this article. There is no way to summarize the Atlanta soccer fan, to put a neat bow on this city, its new team, much like there is no way to summarize the American soccer fan. All 55,000 people in that stadium on Sunday had and has their own relationship with the beautiful game. Trying to sum them up or, worse, make some argument for regional authenticity or some new progressive (and yet still uniquely American!) expression of that relationship with the sport is at best naïve and at worst condescending.

It’s why it’s much easier and more accurate to simply say: 55,000 people came to a soccer game in Atlanta played at a stately old college football field and the team blew a late lead, just like Atlanta teams always seem to. Some fans got too drunk. Others chanted problematically. But they were there, all of them, cheering and singing and banging drums. And when that ball was crossed from Tyrone Mears to Yamil Asad at that back post and he took it on that first time, and it went in the net, and that crowd all screamed and hugged one another, man, y’all should have seen it.