Embracing United: ‘Feels like we’ve been around for 30 years’

Embracing United: ‘Feels like we’ve been around for 30 years’

By Ian Thomas, Staff Writer


United’s first homegrown player, Andrew Carleton, made an impression on fans when he was introduced during the team’s third home match.
Atlanta United FC President Darren Eales wasn’t sure what to expect from the team’s home games in its inaugural season in MLS. But he knew there would be a crowd.

With more than 30,000 season tickets sold — an MLS record for an expansion club, and second most in the league behind Seattle — and strong single-game sales, that was never a question.

But how would the atmosphere compare? Eales, who joined the club in September 2014 from the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur, had long heard the criticisms that Atlanta wasn’t a sports town, or that it wouldn’t embrace soccer, notions that even the club’s outsized ticket sales couldn’t seem to fully squelch. Eales was aware there might be a learning curve before the city was up to speed on the unique elements of soccer’s culture like the chants or tifos, or even just the tactics or the players on the team.

The first game at Bobby Dodd Stadium was a massive success. Playing in front of a sold-out crowd of 55,297, it ranked as the fourth-most attended soccer match that weekend, even with every major European soccer league also playing.

The next two home games built off that. The crowds grew louder, standing the entire game, chanting in unison, and all seemingly wearing the club’s red and black striped jersey or holding scarves above their heads.

Then, in the club’s third home game versus Houston on May 20, came a moment for Eales that showcased the team’s nearly two-year journey to this point. Near the end of the match, Andrew Carleton — the Powder Springs, Ga., native who last year became the club’s first homegrown player as a 16-year-old — was subbed on. Holding a 4-1 lead late in the match, it might have been understandable if he received respectful yet tepid applause.

As he warmed up, the crowd erupted into one of the biggest cheers anyone on the team had received all season, Eales said. Carleton got a standing ovation when his name was announced.

“With this two-year buildup of the team without playing any games, all we could focus on was the storytelling around the team and players like Andrew,” Eales said. “You hope all of that builds up, but you never know — and then he’s subbed on and the fans are singing that he’s one of our own — it just shows the level of impact that Atlanta United has had in this community.”

Eales said he knew it would take time for the fans to get to the level of fanaticism that is seen around the league in cities like Orlando and Seattle. Unlike both of those cities, there was not a previous professional soccer team tied to the city. And the stadium, while accustomed to raucous Georgia Tech football games, had never hosted the sport. Eales and the staff have continued to tweak elements of the game presentation to further perfect it, as well as work with the fans and supporters group to build on this momentum, including handing out chant cards so that other fans can quickly join in.

“With the atmosphere we’ve created together, it generally feels like we’ve been around for 30 years,” Eales said.

United hopes that level only gets further elevated this year when the team is finally able to move into its permanent home at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The first United game at the new stadium is scheduled for Sept. 10.

“Bobby Dodd has been fantastic, but being able to move into our home, and have complete control over that venue with things like the fan-friendly pricing and around the buildup to the match with fan experience things in and outside of the stadium, it should bring the matches to another level,” he said.

It will also give the club the opportunity to further ramp up the crowds, hopefully setting MLS records in the process.
Through seven home matches, Atlanta United is averaging 46,698 fans per game, with capacity of the stadium roughly 55,000. The MLS record for average attendance in a full season is 44,247, set by the Seattle Sounders in 2015.

Originally, the plan for United games at Mercedes-Benz was to use only the lower bowl, which would seat just over 29,000 — a figure that the team already outpaces in season-ticket holders alone.

While Eales said the club has not yet decided what it will determine is the proper amount of seats to offer for those home matches, it has the ability to seat more than 70,000, a number that while ambitious, might be possible. Single-game tickets for those home games are expected to go on sale in the coming weeks.

“It’s a champagne problem, and while we feel pretty confident that we’ll be able to hit a figure around the record average in our first season, we want to keep growing our audience and get to a position where we have the full stadium for more and more games,” Eales said. “We know this is a league that is pushing for more and more growth, and we want to be a part of that.”

United will also build upon the different ways it has been successful thus far. Eales said the club would be making additional hires on the social and digital media front to further build its outreach to fans. On the back of opening its new training facility for all of its players, it will continue to invest more in its academy teams and players, as well as begin to investigate operating its own USL club. Alongside broadcast partner Fox Sports Southeast, it is also working on showcasing more players and their stories during its weekly show.