A foundation built with passion, Major League Soccer’s newest franchise has plenty to boast.
Atlanta United, in their debut season are building something special inside of Major League Soccer. A league unfairly brandished as a ‘retirement home’ for many who make the move from Europe. But the Red and Blacks of the South took a very different approach when filling their roster during the 2017 off-season.
Located in the heart of midtown Atlanta, in the middle of Georgia Tech, a sprawling, decorated university grows a very different kind of soccer club. While playing in a college-town is just a temporary home, the ambiance surrounding the young club is remarkable.
While recent rookie franchises like NYCFC or Orlando City brought in veteran legends of the game, like David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and Ricardo Kaka’, Atlanta opted to build in a much more audacious fashion.
Firstly, the signing of ex-Barcelona head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. By bringing in such a widely well known and respected tactician, it immediately engaged Atlantans to pay more attention to the franchise coming to town. While enthusiasm has always been high (mostly given to the fact of how long the city had to wait for an MLS team to get here), this sounded off the ambitions of the club and how they wanted to quickly put together a winning product.
Then came the players.
President Darren Eales and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra cannot be praised enough for their work, especially for how risky of a strategy they played. Miguel Almiron, a Paraguay international was the marquee signing for the club. In a time where it would have been easy to bring in a player at the end-days of their career to sell shirts and merchandise, the brass signed an exciting player who’s future is as hot as a day in the city. Atlanta’s nickname isn’t ‘Hotlanta’ for nothing, the sweltering heat during the mid months of the year can be brutal.
Hector Villalba from San Lorenzo has also been a success. The 22-year old has jetted off to a sensational start in Atlanta, quickly racking up five goals and assisting four others in 12 matches. Villalba’s potential is limitless and many clubs even from Europe had their eye on him while he was at San Lorenzo in Argentina. Fiorentina and Inter were two sides in 2015 who closely monitored his progress in his homeland.
The third Designated Player came from Torino in the form of Josef Martinez. The Venezuelan suffered an injury in the third game of the season that has kept him out until now, but he quickly rose to prominence by scoring five goals before getting hurt.
But the impressive work done by ATL’s front office staff doesn’t end there. Signing Brad Guzan, Kenwyne Jones, Carlos Carmona, Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez, Yamil Asad and captain Michael Parkhurst has given the club a mix of teeming youth and hardened veterans. Couple this with Tata Martino’s presence, and you have a nicely blended side who is exceeding expectations in their inaugural season. In fact, no other team has scored more goals than Atlanta United in MLS, finding the back of the net 27 times.
Branding and Marketing
While attending the match against New York City on May 28th, a few things in particular struck me about the fans. Besides the fact each home match has been a sellout at Georgia Tech’s historic Bobby Dodd Stadium, the vast majority of fans are indeed millennials. These aren’t leftover fans from when the Atlanta Chiefs were playing at Fulton County Stadium back in the 70s, this is new generation of fans who are incredibly passionate about soccer in general.
The chants are natural and free-flowing, they don’t sound forced like at other grounds either in America or abroad. I believe the fact that most fans are young, college age or slightly older, didn’t happen by accident. The city and surrounding suburbs have a large, young, Hispanic population. That ‘base’ of people are all crazy about futbol, especially regarding either Real Madrid or Barcelona. Remember the point I brought up about Tata Martino? His arrival was music to the ears of a fanatical portion of Atlantans. Even for non-Barcelona fans, everybody knows who Martino is.
— Alex Mascitti (@AlexMascitti) May 28, 2017
What about the three designated players who are all Hispanic themselves? It’s creating a bond between fans and players that is seldom seen elsewhere. If you’re going to spend the money to bring in quality players and coaches, the extra bond with the fans is in short – brilliant.
The model the club has constructed has launched in a way that brings promise and hope. Many of the players are far off from their primes and have a lot of room to develop. It’s another signal that MLS is transforming from a league filled with mediocre leftovers and hasbeens to a much more competitive and exciting organization.
Teams in Italy should look at Atlanta United and take the more bold, audacious approach. They should engage heavily to the fans, and be accessible with them. There’s a reason MLS has a higher average attendance than Serie A, and it’s not just about the stadiums.
Bobby Dodd Stadium is ancient and is far from beautiful. The stands are 90% bleachers and is barely a comfortable venue, but it works. The pre-game festivals and tailgates provide an atmosphere that makes you forget you’re at an old arena, and makes you focus on what’s important: having fun.
For Atlanta United, it’s only the beginning of a long and challenging journey, but there are certainly lessons that can be applied elsewhere, even for clubs that are over one hundred years old.