When thinking about how football is perceived in the US, the word ‘soccer’ is the first thing that comes to mind. Tagging along with the term, the preconceptions about the sport have become so clichéd that even the average American is annoyed if you mention the fact to a point that they just say “Yeah, yeah, yeah, ‘Americans suck for not appreciating soccer’ ‘You don’t call it by the right name’…now get outta my face”.

However, lately I’ve found out about something that could already be a well-known fact, but for me it got more interesting the more I read about it. Apparently, Americans DO like football–in one city, in particular, they break attendance records.

In summer of 2017, Home Depot co-founder and Atlanta Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, gave way for the inauguration of a stadium in Atlanta. While the Falcons would play their NFL games there, they would share the Mercedes-Benz stadium with another team, from a different league and sport. As an expansion franchise, Atlanta United FC was introduced last year in the MLS as the newest competitor of the league. Usually, new teams fear the phenomenon of not being able to build a following. This proved to not be a problem for Atlanta, though.

Image result for atlanta united audience
View of the Mercedes-Benz stadium during United’s first match vs Dallas FC — Note the retractable dome

On September 16th 2017, in a regular season match against Orlando City SC, attendance reached a figure of 70,425 with 1,818 seats to spare. This number broke the attendance record for MLS games since that of LA Galaxy in 1996. In 2018, the record was once again broken on July 15th against Seattle Sounders FC. 72,243 attended the 1-1 draw.

What has factored in this occurrence?

I’ve personally found out from first-hand accounts of Atlanta residents that the city harbors great appreciation for sports. However, they’re thought of as not as the most feisty city when it comes to fandom. This has been due to their letdowns in representative franchises. With the Hawks plummeting in the NBA last season, having lost an NHL appearance with the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg (this being the second time for them to lose a hockey team; in 1980 the Flames moved to Alberta), and with the Braves only holding the name of the city but not actually playing IN the city, Atlanta has been longing to have a team that truly channels a feeling for the team that makes them proud (yes, the Falcons did make the Super Bowl in 2017 but they suffered that ugly upset against the Patriots).

Another factor are the marketing techniques that the United staff implemented. They established four ‘supporter clubs’, which outside of the US translates to ‘hooligan gangs minus the violence’. The four chapters, Footie Mob, Resurgence, Terminus Legion, and The Faction, make it possible for the fans to be implemented as part of the team, not as just watchers. As expected to an extent, the participants come from a mixed demographic.

According to Curbed Atlanta, a website which deeply analyses the housing situations of Atlanta, 37% of the residents were not born Atlanta, while Spalding County holds 77% of non-Georgians. In the midst of that migration, there are some which are not even from the US. This could account for a re-surge in the love for the sport (these fans better be part of the Resurgence club), and for the stadiums to roar with excitement at any football matches played.

Even though all these factors hold great importance, I think the team itself makes them worth following. 23 games into the MLS 2018 season, they are on top of the league, leading the Conference and the whole league in points. While American names dominate the roster, five Argentinian players have invested efforts in the success, with German, Venezuelan, Irish, and English names also contributing. This way, they present a colorful mix which could maybe even be competitive in the FIFA Club World Cup.

As an outsider myself, it pleases me to see such an appreciation for ‘The Beautiful Game’, as the US could truly become an important competitor even in a platform like the World Cup. Seattle, New York, Los Angeles are also cities that are homes for teams that have great followings and are not behind in numbers, fact that could be a sign for the sport’s growth in the US. Maybe by the time the World Cup is exhibited in 2026, the national men’s team could be ready to dominate and surprise on American soil not only the world, but even its own followers.

Cover photo: accesswdun.com/article/2017/7/558805/expansion-atlanta-united-lead-mls-in-attendance

Stadium view: soccerstadiumdigest.com/2017/09/atlanta-united-fc-wins-in-mercedes-benz-stadium-opener/

Graph: atlanta.curbed.com/2016/7/28/12304886/atlanta-natives-transplants-map

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