The Atlanta story, a perfect storm hits pro soccer's Valley Forge

Atlanta, which will host the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday night, holds a special place in American soccer history.

Atlanta was pro soccer's Valley Forge, the place to which Phil Woosnam and Clive Toye retreated after the NASL almost collapsed following its first season in 1968.

Woosnam, a former Welsh international and math and physics teacher, and Toye, the former chief sportswriter for London's Daily Express, were two soccer nuts lured to the United States for pro soccer's launch in 1967 and didn't know when to stop.

They moved into a basement office at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, home of the Chiefs, one of five surviving teams, and plotted how sell soccer to America.

As crazy as they were, pro soccer took off. In fits and starts, to be sure. But it's gained momentum and never stopped.

The irony is, pro soccer always struggled in Atlanta. The Chiefs, where Woosnam started out as the player-coach in 1967. Apollos. Ruckus. Silverbacks. It didn't matter. They all failed.

It took 50 years for Atlanta to become a soccer city, but when it did, it took off like in no other American city.

Atlanta United averaged 48,200 fans in its first MLS season, breaking the record set by the old Cosmos, Toye's baby, and will shatter that record in 2018.

A few teams in the old NASL were instant successes, but they eventually flamed out. But no team without a previous life has ever started out like Atlanta United did in 2017 when red-clad fans filled Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta United's temporary home, from the first game against the New York Red Bulls.

A perfect storm hit Atlanta: ownership, management, coaching, players, facilities. And fans dying for a team.

Arthur Blank, a co-founder of The Home Depot and owner of the NFL Falcons, happened to become a soccer dad in his 60s. He held off buying an MLS team until a new stadium could be ready for both the Falcons and his soccer team, Atlanta United.

Dating back to the early 1990s, NFL stadiums were constructed with soccer in mind in terms of the width of the field, but Blank took it to a new level with the design of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, built at a price tag of $1.5 billion. Atlanta United fans say Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a soccer stadium -- the Falcons just happen to play there in the fall.

Blank paid $60 million to build the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground in Marietta, site of Tuesday's MLS Homegrown Game, and hired former Barcelona and Argentina national team coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino as head coach.

The signing of Paraguayan Miguel Almiron for a transfer fee of around $8 million will go down as one of the seminal moments in MLS history. Blank laid down a marker to other owners that they needed to start spending if they wanted to keep up with Atlanta United.

Almiron wasn't just a good business move -- he will likely move on after the 2018 season for double what Atlanta United paid for him -- but more important he has brought excitement to Mercedes-Benz Stadium like few players have ever done before him in MLS and helped make Atlanta United the team to beat in 2018.

Blank hired Englishman Darren Eales, a former All-American at Brown University and pro player in the USISL and A-League, away from Tottenham and made him club president. Eales in turn hired a young front-office staff that immediately connected with fans in Atlanta, tapping into the diversity of the community and its culture, as well as a longing of the city's transplants for a team of their own.

One saw that on Tuesday as Atlanta fans watched the MLS all-stars train at open practice. Any time Almiron or Josef Martinez did something -- five Atlanta United players in all are on the all-star team -- the small crowd went nuts, the noise echoing through the domed stadium. And as you exited the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, you could see young fans in groups of two or three, all in their Five Stripes uniforms, walking out.

Nothing like Woosnam or Toye ever saw in the basement of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications