From Soccer Start-up to Stardom Status
What to Expect from Atlanta’s Newest Sports Team
written by BROOKS METZLER | photography courtesy of ATLANTA UNITED FOOTBALL CLUB; MERCEDES-BENZ STADIUM
Every 30 minutes, the crowd at World of Beer in Midtown broke out into a lively chant. One ringleader kicked it off, then the rest echoed: “Atlanta, Atlanta; United, United.” Welcome to Terminalia, the third-annual launch party for the Atlanta United Football Club fan group, the Terminus Legion.
“We want to give our team and our players the support they need to raise their game,” said Matt Stigall. He founded the Terminus Legion in 2014 as a Georgia nonprofit after successfully running a grassroots petition in 2011 called “ATLwantsMLS” to bring a Major League Soccer (MLS) team to the city.
Stigall’s efforts officially come to fruition when Atlanta United’s inaugural MLS season kicks off March 5 against the New York Red Bulls at Bobby Dodd Stadium — a temporary base until construction of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is completed later this year.
The First Fan
Stigall works in the marketing field, and said that’s where he got the experience in running startups and doing some of the functions necessary to establish an organization like Terminus Legion. This Vinings resident wasn’t always a blue-blooded soccer fan, though.
Stigall first became interested in soccer eight years ago, when he started watching overseas matches. “It overwhelmed me,” he said, “the passion these fans had, and I started saying, ‘If these people can be so passionate about a sport, let me give it a try [in Atlanta] and see what happens.’” It was with that philosophy that Stigall began his petition, initially setting up tables at Kennesaw State University soccer matches and soon garnering attention from Arthur Blank himself.
Blank, known as the cofounder of The Home Depot and current owner of the Atlanta Falcons, now also owns Atlanta United FC. He announced the latter’s status as an MLS franchise on July 7, 2015. In a following press release for the team, Blank said: “Tonight represents a milestone moment for our city, for our club and for soccer fans across the region … It’s the next step in the journey toward 2017 for Atlanta United, and we are ready to make our mark in MLS and in global soccer.”
At the time of the announcement, fans had already purchased 21,500 season tickets. As of January 2017, that number had passed 27,000 — with another five weeks before the season was set to begin.
Stigall certainly isn’t surprised by the level of attention the team has garnered. “When we start signing some internationally known soccer players, people will connect to the city through our team,” he said.
What Stigall also knows is the amount of talent and diversity this team already has. Atlanta United’s impressive roster, in my opinion, starts with Head Coach Gerardo Martino, known affectionately in soccer circles as “Tata.” Martino’s résumé reads like that of an industry magnate. Born in Argentina, Martino first played for his hometown team, Newell’s Old Boys, where he set a record for number of appearances that remains to this day. In his coaching career, he’s known for heading the Paraguay National Team from 2006 to 2011, then from 2013 to 2014, the Futbol Club Barcelona, which has one of the largest followings in professional soccer and plays in the largest stadium in Europe. Prior to joining Atlanta United, Martino managed the Argentine national team.
In an interview with The New York Times, Martino said he took the job with Atlanta United because it was a rare chance “to begin a project from zero.” Martino is committed to youth soccer and enhancing the progression of younger players. Prior to its first season in MLS, his team has launched a fully funded academy and has begun competing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program with teams in age groups U-12, U-13, U-14, U-16 and U-18. These teams have been practicing and competing in the same state-of-the-art, training ground in Marietta as the professionals.
The coach’s dedication becomes more apparent when you dive further into the Atlanta United roster. Players like Andrew Carleton, a 16-year-old midfielder, demonstrate the franchise’s willingness to carry out coach Martino’s vision of grooming young athletes. Carleton cut his teeth in the Atlanta United Academy and youth teams in Powder Springs before becoming the first “Homegrown” player signed to Atlanta United. The Homegrown Player Rule allows MLS teams to sign players directly to their team roster; in many cases, it’s incentive for young players to stay local, rather than choosing big-name teams that may be knocking on their doors.
Though he was signed at only 15, Carleton boasts an impressive résumé himself. At the time of his signing, in June of last year, Carleton was playing two divisions ahead of his age on the United States Men’s Team for U-17. As noted on the team roster, his game is “creative and technical, with an attacking playing style.”
Another notable player is Chris Goslin, also a 16-year-old midfielder who came up through the Atlanta United Academy and hails from Locust Grove. He was the second Homegrown player signed as of last October. Then there’s 29-year-old midfielder Chris McCann from Dublin, Ireland. His career to date has involved more than 350 appearances in English matches, including ones in the English Premier League, the most-watched sports league in the world.
A Legacy in the Making
Even if eyes outside the soccer world haven’t been on the players, I can guarantee they’ve been on construction of the stadium where United will play.
Ground broke on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium soon after the franchise announcement was made. The $1.5-billion structure will replace the Georgia Dome, which will be demolished and become a 13-acre green space. On game days, it will be a tailgate lot and on nonevent days, a public space for cultural events, community functions and various other activities. Atlanta Falcons CEO Rich McKay said in a press conference that the College Football Championship in Jan. 2018 is the goal for having the cleared site available for parking and tailgating.
“The opening five weeks are going to showcase the thought, design and effort that went into this unique building in every configuration. Football fans, soccer supporters and concert-goers are going to be treated to a spectacular experience for those events.” – Steve Cannon, CEO, AMB Group
What can fans expect from a brand new stadium? For one thing: food. Whereas the Georgia Dome offered only four bar and restaurant choices, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium will offer 24. A few highlights are local favorites like Antico Pizza Napoletana, whose anchor location is located in West Midtown has become synonymous with pizza greatness, King of Pops, an Atlanta-based artisan selling perpetual summer and familiar Southern staples like Jim ‘N Nicks barbecue, Chick-fil-A, Sublime Donuts, The Varsity and more.
Food is just the beginning. As it turns out, another huge advantage of the new home base is not only increased capacity for fans, but much more flexibility compared to the Dome. Steve Cannon, who left his post as CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA to head Blank’s AMB Group, said, “The opening five weeks are going to showcase the thought, design and effort that went into this unique building in every configuration. Football fans, soccer supporters and concert-goers are going to be treated to a spectacular experience for those events.”
The stadium can be expanded to hold up to 83,000 for some events, but soccer numbers are expected to reach less than half of that. To compensate, lower-level seating in the stadium is touted with the ability to retract. Additionally, mechanized curtains will wall off the upper levels of the stadium, providing sound insulation and a more intimate feel for the estimated 29,000 soccer fans attending each game.
Watching those games inside the stadium will be enhanced by an LED video display mounted at the opening of the roof. The 360-degree display from Daktronics is the first of its kind in the world and measures a whopping 58-feet high, with 61,900 square feet of display space.
Members of a Club United
Stigall has since passed his torch as President Emeritus of Terminus Legion, but remains on the board among other likeminded locals who put in hours after their day jobs to champion Atlanta soccer in our community and beyond. More chapters have formed in other parts of Georgia as well as across state lines in South Carolina. In addition to events like Terminalia, members plan to converge at Fadó Irish Pub in Buckhead on March 12 for their first MLS Away Watch Party when Atlanta United FC takes on Minnesota United FC in Minneapolis.
As we rounded out our conversation, I asked Stigall what the future looked like for Atlanta United. He said the energy is palpable; thousands of people are waiting for the first game, but also many people are still unaware of what this means for Atlanta. “[They] don’t know about it, or are waiting to see, and when they see the passionate fans, their eyes are going to open.”
Atlanta United plays their first eight matches at Bobby Dodd and anticipates to play the first ever game in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 30, 2017 against Orlando City Soccer Club. Beyond that, the stadium also plans to host the College Football Playoff Championship game in 2018, Super Bowl LIII in 2019 and the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2020.
If Stigall can be assured of one thing, it’s that his home team has the loudest rallying cry.