Soccer in the South: Atlanta’s Complicated Path to Becoming a Major League Soccer City

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Earlier this year I was approached by a blog to write a history of soccer in the Atlanta. This blog wanted to run an article on the topic since the new Major League Soccer club Atlanta United FC was beginning their first season as an expansion club. The blog decided to go in a different direction and this article was never published. I spent a considerable amount of time on it and was disappointed to never publish it. As ATLUTD play their first MLS Cup Playoff game, I figure I would go ahead and publish it here. This piece was written prior to the season and does not reflect how well the club has done in their first season.

I would like to thank Jason Longshore from the podcast Soccer Down Here for his assistance with this piece. 

As Atlanta United FC kick-off their first season of Major League Soccer, the club has generated a massive level of excitement around the city. While soccer has been played at the professional level for decades in Atlanta, everything about AUFC feels contemporary and modern. While many Major League Soccer clubs enter the league will revive iconic team names or build their imagery around their home city, Atlanta United has charted a different course. They have sought to brand themselves as Atlanta’s new soccer club, with no sense of the sports’ history in the city.

Atlanta Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank has given Former Barcelona and Argentina national team manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino and his staff the backing to build a competitive squad from the ground up. Leading the line for the club are a trio of talented young South Americans, Miguel Almirón, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba. The club share both primary jersey colors and eventually the new architecturally dynamic Mercedes-Benz Stadium with their parent company the Falcons once it opens this summer.

While the club work to craft their organization and fan culture from scratch, there is a masquerade of progress and modernity that hides deeper and more complicated historical roots of professional soccer in the city.  As Atlanta United FC take the stage this season, they’ll look to reestablish top tier professional soccer in a city where the sport has a rich but shadowy history.

Soccer in Atlanta Kicks Off

While soccer has been played in the United States since the late 1800s, most of the teams and leagues were found in the immigrant communities of the Northeast. Notably, in the South, the first inter-city contest featured sides from Atlanta and Chattanooga meeting on February 22, 1912 with Atlanta winning 4-0.[1] But modern soccer would not arrive in Atlanta until the late 1960s just as the city was on the rise as the capital of the New South. The city’s sports scene was exploding during this period with the MLB’s Braves and NFL’s Falcons starting play in the city in 1966 and the NBA’s Hawks joining them in 1968. Amidst these additions, which are better remembered today, the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Chiefs joined this suddenly active sports landscape in 1966. The Chiefs were founded by the Atlanta Braves ownership group, and were initially led by a charismatic and intellectual Welsh player, Phil Woosnam. Still in the midst of a successful career in the English Football League with Aston Villa, Woosnam had taken a chance to come to Atlanta and become their player-manager in 1967, hoping to get some experience coaching while at the same time learning sports management from an American perspective.[2]

The Chiefs’ achieved a great deal of success during their two brief tenures in Atlanta (1966–1973 and 1979–1981). On April 16, 1967, the Chiefs participated in the first nationally televised soccer game in the United States as the Baltimore Bays defeated the Chiefs and the headlines read “Soccer Makes Its Network Debut: Coverage Brightened by British Announcer Visual Advantages Over U.S. Football Seen.”[3]  The club added to their historic accomplishments in 1968 when they defeated the then English Premier League champions Manchester City in an exhibition 2-3 in front of an enthusiastic crowd of over 23,000. Manchester City had been embarrassed by a team they termed “fourth division at best” and returned to Atlanta later that summer demanding a rematch. This time, the Chiefs won 2-1 in front of an even larger crowd.[4] The team built on that success to finish the season first in their division. After beating the San Diego Toros 3-0 in the second leg of the championship in Atlanta the club won their first and only trophy. Woosnam was named Coach of the Year while South African player Kaizer Motaung, the team’s leading scorer, was named Rookie of the Year.[5] The Chief’s 1968 championship was a first for the city of Atlanta in a top tier sports league.

While the league peaked in the late 1970s behind international superstars like Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff, and Franz Beckenbauer, Atlanta was largely on the sideline as the first incarnation of the Chiefs folded in 1973. And though the team was resurrected in 1979 by Ted Turner and Dick Cecil, they had largely missed the league’s best days. Exorbitant spending by clubs and the rapid over-expansion of new teams eventually led to an instability that would destroy the league by 1985 and inaugurate a dark and chaotic period in American soccer, with leagues forming and dissolving in quick succession. In that period, teams like the Atlanta Magic and the Georgia Generals among many others called the city home, playing in leagues of widely various levels of professionalism, but as in the rest of the country, soccer in Atlanta was no more than a semi-professional sport.

A stable top-tier soccer league would not return to the United States until 1996, when FIFA stipulated the US Soccer Federation create Major League Soccer to help further develop the game in America as a condition of their awarding the 1994 World Cup to the United States. According to Atlanta soccer historian and managing editor of Soccer Down Here Jason Longshore the city was in the mix for one of the inaugural expansion teams, but a lack of interest in season ticket deposits and stadium issues plagued the city’s bid to be among the first ten teams.[6]

MLS and various ownership groups continued to seek opportunities for expansion in Atlanta over the years. While top division soccer would have to wait, the city was represented on the soccer field in the lower leagues by what is today the city’s longest tenured club – the Atlanta Silverbacks. Starting play in 1995 as the Atlanta Ruckus but changing their name to the Silverbacks in 1999, they have kept the game alive for fans in the city.

Major League Soccer Grows the Game

In 2008, Atlanta Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank began to look for a way to bring an MLS club to the city. [7] The league added teams slowly and deliberately to the league as they attempted to manage their growth in contrast to the former North American Soccer League. This steady development was accelerated around commissioner Don Garber’s MLS 2.0 vision that grew the league in important ways.  Crucial to this period a larger movement of grassroots supporter group movement. This fan-based energy gave games an authentic experience that many Americans who followed international leagues like the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga sought.[8] The league’s growth was also helped by the signing of older but dynamic players from foreign leagues, like English star David Beckham.

While Blanks’ talks with MLS continued, stadium approval was still a sticking point. Part of the MLS 2.0 vision included a new stipulation for expansion clubs that they would ply their trade in purpose built soccer specific stadiums in downtown areas. These buildings would provide a better fan experience in comparison to American football stadiums whose sightlines, field markings, and cavernous stadiums proved an ill-suited stage for soccer. Moreover, downtown stadiums were preferred as they were close to the millennial urbanites who have proven a boon to soccer attendance while also allowing stadium development to be sold as part of a larger urban renewal project.[9] The MLS clubs with the best attendance records have all followed this formula for success.

Soccer Returns to the South

Major League Soccer lost its initial presence in the South when the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion both folded in 2001. It was not until the arrival of Orlando City SC in 2015 that MLS returned to the Southeast. The success of that club and the potential for a regional rivalry helped to reconnect MLS with Atlanta just as Blank and the Atlanta Falcons organization were finishing new stadium designs that included adjustable seating and a draping system to create the exact type of atmosphere the league expected for games.[10] With a stadium plan now in place, Blank was quickly awarded a team in 2014, to begin play in the 2017 season.[11] The club began their inaugural season on March 5 selling out their temporary home, Bobby Dodd stadium with an MLS record 30,000 season ticket holders.[12]

Atlanta United FC’s massive fan support and early success hopefully signal a permanent place for soccer in the city after what has admittedly been a complicated and convoluted path. But ultimately, Atlanta’s complex soccer past mirrors the game’s development on a national level, with fits of starts and stops destroying any sense of continuity. The growth and stability of Major League Soccer, the development of the game in rival southern cities, and Atlanta’s diverse but young population could all signal the right time for soccer to fully reestablish itself in the city. Within this new permanence, the echoes of history should be seen as adding legitimacy to Atlanta United FC’s campaign, and not simply paved over for the club’s self-identification with modernity.

[1] Jason Longshore, “When Atlanta and Chattanooga First Met on the Soccer Field…” Dirty South Soccer,  Accessed March 21, 2017 http://www.dirtysouthsoccer.com/platform/amp/atlanta-soccer-history/2017/2/9/14561736/atlanta-chattanooga-soccer-history-1912 The club, Atlanta Soccer Football Club was formed in 1908 and made up of quarry workers from Lithonia.

[2] David Tossell, Playing for Uncle Sam: The Brits’ Story of the North American Soccer League (Edinburgh, Mainstream Publishing, 2003), 32. After Phil Woosnam’s tenure with the Atlanta Chiefs, he would eventually go on to become commissioner of the NASL.

[3] Jack Gould, “TV: Soccer Makes Its Network Debut,” The New York Times, April 17, 1967, pg. 75.

[4] Ian Plenderleith, Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League (New York, Thomas Dunne Books, 2014), 9-11, 28-29.

[5] Kaizer Motaung would later return to South Africa and form the iconic Kaizer Chiefs using the Atlanta club’s chief logo.

[6] Jason Longshore, email message to author, February 14, 2017.

[7] Dan Chapman, “Blank’s Bid: Atlanta vying with 3 Other US Cities, 3 Canadian Cities for MLS Franchise,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution October 16, 2008, C1.

[8] Ibid., 230-233.

[9] Sam Sturgis, “Why the Future of Major League Soccer Is Downtown,” City Lab, accessed March 18, 2017, http://www.citylab.com/design/2014/11/why-the-future-of-major-league-soccer-is-downtown/382942/.

[10] Brian Straus, “Former Crew CM, Current Falcons VP Confident Blank, MLS Will Be Fruitful Combo,” Sports Illustrated, accessed February 18, 2017,  http://www.si.com/soccer/planet-futbol/2014/04/18/atlanta-mls-jim-smith-arthur-blank-expansion.

[11] Avi Creditor, “MLS awards 2017 expansion franchise to Atlanta, owner Arthur Blank,” Sports Illustrated,  accessed March 19, 2017, http://www.si.com/soccer/planet-futbol/2014/04/16/mls-awards-2017-expansion-franchise-to-atlanta-owner-arthur-blank.

[12] Atlanta United Communications Department, “Atlanta United Announces 30,000 Season Tickets Sold,” Atlanta United FC, accessed March 21, 2017, https://www.atlutd.com/post/2017/02/24/atlanta-united-announces-30000-season-tickets-sold.

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