There is a real buzz around Major League Soccer this season with the addition of Atlanta United FC.
It was unknown how Atlanta, Georgia would embrace First Division soccer as there hadn’t been top-flight soccer in town since the Atlanta Chiefs played in the now-defunct NASL from 1979-1981 averaging around 6,000 per game.
In just nine home games this season the new team in town is smashing MLS attendance records as the team boasts a 6-2-1 home record leading the league averaging just over 46,000 per match in this inaugural season.
So far 416,864 fans have packed Atlanta’s temporary home at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium turning the oldest college football stadium in the country into the “Hype Depot” of MLS (a play on words as ATLUTD is owned by Arthur Blank, founder and CEO of Home Depot).
Just ahead is the opening of the state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz Stadium to be shared with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons franchise but there was one final game to play at Bobby Dodd over the weekend.
The newest rivalry in MLS was born a week ago in Florida as Atlanta took a 1-0 decision over Orlando City in dramatic fashion with a Hector “Tito” Villalba rocket in the 86th minute to grab all three points.
The return leg of the new southeastern rivalry was this past Saturday night inside Bobby Dodd and the “Hype Depot” was again rocking in the A-T-L.
The crowd of 45,006 versus Orlando City marked the seventh highest attendance figure this season for the league (Atlanta holds the top spot of 55,297 on opening night vs NYRB) and Atlanta United holds seven of the top ten attendance marks this season.
The sea of red and black on Saturday had a few sprinkles of purple OCSC in the mix but even the block of 400 or so traveling fans were lost in the noise and energy of the Five Stripes.
Making his home debut was new Atlanta signing goalkeeper Brad Guzan between the pipes with Orlando running out their new signing forward Dom Dwyer.
Pregame festivities of the Golden Spike (Atlanta was founded as a railroad town) hammered home by hip hop artist Metro Boomin’ and a Waffle House-inspired tifo stirred the crowd to their feet where they’d stand the entire match.
A hot, sunny day greeted the teams to the pitch and the stifling heat slowed the tempo of both teams over the first 30 minutes. There were some late challenges, harsh words, and heated exchanges (just what you’d expect from a derby match) as both teams looked for an advantage early on the match.
With some near-misses from both teams the breakthrough moment for Orlando came in the 40’ from a searching goal kick that was knocked down to Kaka for a wondergoal from just outside the box.
This momentarily silenced the loud home crowd but was quickly answered with a loud A-T-L chorus to take the game to the half.
Half-time recognition and a late equalizer
At the half, the U16 ATLUTD Academy team was recognized for their recent National Championship and team owner Arthur Blank as well as club president Darren Eales were there to congratulate the boys on the club’s first trophy.
The second half saw Atlanta grind away at the defensive-minded Orlando side finally scoring the equalizing goal in extra time as for the second straight game “Tito” Villalba broke the hearts of the Lions slipping a low shot under OCSC goalkeeper Joe Bendik to knot things 1-1.
The final whistle rang out just minutes later and the Bobby Dodd Stadium era of Atlanta United drew to a close. Atlanta finished with 2/3 of the possession while earning a hard-fought point versus the Lions.
Several players stopped around the stadium to thank the fans and sign autographs for the kids as the Five Stripes provided a dramatic final act to close out their temporary home.
Promising season and an atmosphere that is a joy to behold
In an expansion season Atlanta United has put together all the right elements to make the club a contender. The product on the field is good with young, talented players alongside proven MLS and U.S. veterans playing a very attractive style of play for coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino.
The club made it a priority to convert the Georgia Tech blue and gold stadium into a sea of red and black United colors with banners and signage to make Bobby Dodd “feel” like Atlanta United’s stadium even if it was for just nine games.
The supporters groups have done a great job at the grassroots level to make the gameday experience something special that all the fans feel moved by the energy of the crowd.
Bottom line is that an Atlanta United game doesn’t feel like an expansion team playing in an expansion season in a temporary home inside a college football stadium for a fanbase who’ve lacked top-flight soccer since 1981…that’s simply the beauty and the magic of what has happened this season with the Five Stripes in Atlanta.
Expect all this energy and more to follow the boys to the new “Hype Depot Megastore” location opening downtown Atlanta inside the Mercedes Benz Stadium versus FC Dallas on September 10. FS1 has the telecast at 3:30 p.m.
Written by Forrest Wimberly
Follow Forrest on Twitter @ForrestWimberly
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