From the grassroots up, Atlanta loved soccer almost immediately, and soccer loved it back.
The morning before Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers in the 2018 MLS Cup, I was invited to play in a pick-up game with some members of Timbers media and a few friends at a field by the Five Points MARTA station, four minutes away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The game was set up through Soccer in the Streets, an Atlanta organization that has partnerships and connections with Atlanta United, Atlanta United Foundation, US Soccer Foundation, MARTA, MLS Works, and other sponsors. The organization is trying to use soccer to affect social change by “reaching kids on the field, in small-group classroom sessions, through hands-on experiences and activities, and participation in youth leadership councils.”
One of Soccer in the Streets’ most prominent efforts has been creating safe spaces: small-sided fields all over the city where children can play soccer. It’s a simple but radical idea to make the game as accessible as possible to underprivileged kids.
The field where the pickup game was played was the organization’s pilot site for what it hopes will be at least 10 fields near subway stations all around the city — just big enough for 5-v-5 on composite turf, with chainlink nets and softer netting all around so balls don’t get lost. Children are allowed to play on it for free. We were only able to play that morning because a youth training camp was canceled due to heavy freezing rain.
Our game lasted about two hours, and while it was a wonderful, it also made me feel envious. Growing up in the inner city of Detroit, it was hard to find well-maintained and safe fields to play on without having to drive into the suburbs or pay for access.
That field in Atlanta, to me, seemed just as important to United’s ongoing communion with the city as the attractive and free-flowing style of soccer that the team plays, and its victory over the Timbers seven hours later that satiated a championship-starved city.
Soccer loves the rags-to-riches story of the poor kid who played in the streets or on dirt fields, before their talent, hard work, and self-belief propelled them to greatness. Sometimes there doesn’t have to be greatness at the end. One of the most heartwarming stories about soccer in recent years was that of a 5-year-old boy who wore a homemade plastic bag Messi jersey while playing in the dirt.
These children are posters for the beauty and reach of soccer, that people love the game so much that no condition can stop them from enjoying or playing it. The underdog story is a celebration of the idea of individualism, that social conditions can be overcome through love and talent.
I’m always skeptical of these stories of the game that are based on the supposed noble quality of poverty. Playing for fun and in unstructured spaces helps nurture creativity in children, but as one of those poor kids who had to find a way to play soccer in terrible conditions — in a village in Nigeria before Detroit — it is frustrating to see such conditions championed, as if poverty is good, rather than limiting, especially in the United States where soccer is still a middle-class sport. I would have done anything to have spaces like the ones that Soccer in the Streets is creating.
On Saturday, it was easy to see Atlanta as a blueprint for expanding soccer elsewhere, even if its particular relationship with the sport is special on all levels.
The stories before United played its first game was that soccer wouldn’t work in the city, and while it’s fun to laugh at those arguments now, it wasn’t unreasonable then, considering the popularity of professional soccer in the United States compared to football, basketball, and baseball. Few people expected Atlanta United to be this successful, let alone to quickly become the pride of the city. It’s a weird but wonderful thing to see streetcars decorated in the team’s color with Josef Martinez’s beautiful face adorning the side.
At every level, Atlanta committed to soccer. The owner is willing to spend money to better the team rather than use it solely as passive income, the front office is actively trying to help grassroots organizations make the game accessible, the manager injected the ideas and the courage into the team necessary to play an entertaining brand of soccer, and the talented players competed with swagger. Not to mention the huge roster of celebrities and musicians who embraced soccer in the city as if it was the most natural connection.
It’d be unfair to expect any other team or city to replicate the profound and intimidating experience of watching more than 70,000 people sing along with “We Ready” as Archie Eversole flashes his gold grill on the biggest video board in existence. It’s a very distinct experience that’s not possible in much of the world, let alone in the United States.
Before the game started, Atlanta United had already won just by how infused they have become with the city. But standing in the stadium before the game and hearing thousands upon thousands of diverse people roar as if they wanted the stadium to come down made it clear that the Timbers had no chance at victory. The fans were going to will their team to victory even if it cost them their vocalchords.
After Atlanta United won, I spent most of the trophy celebration high-fiving random fans who were singing “Vamos vamos vamos ATL” and watching one particular worker at a Heineken bar scream and sing about the team’s victory.
Before following along with “We Are The Champions” as it blared throughout the stadium, she yelled to no one in particular that “The Falcons couldn’t do it. The Braves couldn’t do it. But finally somebody fucking did it! Atlanta United! We won!” and that was probably the best summation of what the team means to Atlanta.
United — in a city where sports almost never work right, and where soccer wasn’t supposed to work at all — took root in Atlanta and won the game from the grassroots on up.