ATLANTA — It’s a clear, calm Thursday night downtown. Nearly 70,000 Atlantans are descending upon Mercedes-Benz Stadium to support Atlanta United FC in its first playoff game ever, against Columbus Crew SC. If you had written those words even just a year ago, you would have been laughed at.
“I ain’t gonna lie to you, if these fans were the same fans for the Falcons game — we’d be undefeated,” security guard Brian Cooper tells me.
Cooper is in charge of Section 101 of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, one of the rowdiest in the building. Section 101 is one of the team’s supporters sections, where there are flags, signs, and chants so loud they’ll rattle your spine. It’s appropriate for one of our own to watch over our most faithful. Like most fans here tonight for United’s knockout match against Columbus Crew SC, Cooper is wearing a United scarf, but it’s over his security uniform. He’s also wearing two strands of gold beads that I compliment him on.
“Like 2 Chainz, know what I’m sayin’?” he says.
A self-described “Greater Baby” — a native of Decatur, where it’s greater — Atlanta United FC has shifted his entire sports fandom.
“Soccer is my favorite sport,” he says. “I don’t care about no football, I don’t care baseball, hockey, I don’t care about none of that. This is my favorite sport now.”
If you’re a fan of Atlanta United FC, you’ve come to know who he is.
“People love me out here,” he told me. “No, for real though.”
Cooper fell so hard for the game that he switched jobs to follow it. He started working games at Bobby Dodd Stadium, where the team played its opening games while construction was being completed at the new Mercedes Benz Stadium. When he learned the team was moving, he switched security companies to move with it — he loved Atlanta United FC that much.
Two weeks ago, before one of Atlanta’s final regular-season home games, I spoke with Cooper in front of his section. When the fans saw me in my outfit — which is not the team’s colors, and I was holding an iPhone and a recorder — they knew I wasn’t there to kick it with them as a fan.
“Are you here for an interview for Brian?” one asked. “See! He’s a celebrity! I’ve been telling Brian he’s a celebrity!” Another fan excitedly jumps in and yells, “Aye, Brian is my best friend right now, bro!”
Cooper became a legend in the section when he started celebrating goals with the fans during games — something he didn’t intend on doing.
“I wasn’t gonna celebrate,” he told me. He showed how he was standing still, as one security guard might do. “They grab my shirt, and just started jumping me up, so I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t say ‘Hey man, get off me,’ so I started jumping up.”
There’s video of the moment. It shows the ecstasy you’d expect from diehard soccer fans — that explosive moment when the goal is scored — with Cooper right there in the middle of it. Ever since then, the security company said that’s going to be his section. You wouldn’t expect that from a security guard at a large venue in today’s climate, but his bosses have been cool with it.
As I was talking to Cooper, another fan came up to speak to him, and Brian introduced us. “This is my man, Bruno, this my man, Bruno, man.” Bruno, not interested in talking to anybody but Cooper, then said to Cooper, “What’s up dude!? You got your jersey?”
The supporters’ section crowdfunded a jersey for Cooper since he didn’t have one. Cooper didn’t have it because he had left it at home. He did have his scarf, though.
As a wave of fans began making their way down the aisle, a chant of “VA-MOS, VA-MOS, VA-MOS A-T-L” started. Then Skate walked up and cut our interview short. She reminded Brian that he had a job to do.
Sarah Kate Noftsinger, better known as “Skate,” is clearly one of the more popular people in Mercedes-Benz Stadium who’s not wearing the five stripes on the pitch. Everybody's reaching out to say hello to her — other staff members, even fans. She’s sporting a black blazer, gray jeans, black leather shoes, and a black bracelet that’s accented with a metal zig-zag charm.
Somebody walks by and compliments her outfit. “I gotta dress nice, they’re winning!” she says back before the Minnesota United game.
She’s been responsible for selling the city of Atlanta on soccer as Atlanta United’s director of marketing and fan engagement. She told me about a phone call she had with somebody on joining Atlanta United back in 2015, to which the person on the other line told her, “Skate, you’re crazy. It’s never going to work in Atlanta.”
(The person on the line wasn’t the only one doubting. Plenty of soccer pundits were concerned about the team trying to make it in the Atlanta market, especially while playing in a football stadium ... something MLS had been shying away from in recent years as more teams moved to smaller, soccer-specific stadiums.)
She used OutKast winning best new rap group at the 1995 Source Awards as an example of a similar disrespect to Atlanta. After being announced as the winners, Andre 3000 and Big Boi were infamously booed as they made their way up to the stage.
“They were here, and everybody pushed them aside because it’s East and West Coast, and we’re Atlanta,” Skate said.
It’s like 3000 emphatically said on stage that night in 1995: “The south got something to say!”
Ever since then, Atlanta has collectively become the home of the best hip-hop in the world.
My town has never been viewed as a premier sports town. In their 51-year history, the closest the Falcons have come to a championship was being up 28-3 in Super Bowl LI. (Yeah, yeah. Insert joke here.) Months later, we’re impervious to the pain the Super Bowl brought.
The Atlanta Hawks’ only claim to an NBA title comes from St. Louis in 1958. For years growing up, the most exciting part for the Hawks for me was the draft because they just weren’t going to win a damn thing.
The Braves somehow managed to be the team of the ‘90s in Major League Baseball but still lost four World Series, only winning one. That’s about as Atlanta as it gets, but it’s impossible to be upset over that. Those were some damn good teams — and anytime you hear the beginning of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” to this day, you’re looking for Chipper Jones to step in the batter’s box.
Welcoming another sports franchise, increasing our odds at getting a championship? We’ll take it — especially those of us here who have been lifelong soccer fans, which is a larger group of people than perhaps anyone expected.
This was a group of people previously famished with a lack of their sport at a professional level, and a group of people who Atlanta sports teams had never really spoken to before. When soccer came, they showed up ... en masse.
Edgar Dominguez, who was born in Mexico and moved to LaGrange 20 years ago, was elated when he learned Atlanta was getting a professional soccer team.
“We always say, ‘Why Atlanta didn’t get no team?’ in the soccer. So when it happened, that was amazing,” Dominguez says before Atlanta’s playoff game against Columbus Crew SC.
“I missed work today, so — I had to lie,” Dominguez says. “I said my chest been hurting for the last two days so I — they don’t let me come to the games cause I have to work. So I had to lie. I had to call out.”
(If you’re Dominguez’s boss and read this...please be cool.)
Daniel Vazquez and his father were waiting outside near the large falcon statue that is outside Mercedes Benz Stadium — the statue was complete with AUFC scarf for the game — for the players to make their entrance to the stadium, along with hundreds of other fans. The Vazquez family is from Colombia and moved here when Daniel was young.
“I was always a Hawks and Falcons fan,” Vazquez tells me. “But there was nothing I could really bond with my dad [over] because he likes soccer. But Atlanta United really brought us together and built a bond with the sport.”
It was the passion in soccer that helped that bond grow. But Vazquez also noticed growing up in Atlanta that this was the most complete representation of the city.
“I think that’s a good thing Atlanta United does,” he said. “It kinda just brings every type of race and ethnicity together to watch a soccer game.”
Many people laughed at the “United” name for Atlanta’s soccer team; it just didn’t seem very original. But seeing the different groups of people who have been brought together by this team, it’s hard not to warm up to it.
People of all ages, races, colors, and creeds walked up through the Congress Center and Philips Arena, making their way to the new Sports Mecca of Atlanta. This happens every game; the supporters walk — where fans of the team make their way from Philips Arena to Mercedes-Benz Stadium — and it is an incredible sight to see.
Nowhere else in the city are you going to see such a diverse group of people rallied together for one cause or event. Just about everyone is wearing team colors, which doesn’t happen at Braves, Falcons, or Hawks games. (Of course, there is a guy in a Tim Tebow Florida jersey and another with an Ohio State 2014 National Championship hat, because great soccer team or not, this is the college football capital of the United States. It wouldn’t be a complete crowd without them.)
As I wait for the players to get off the bus and make their way into the stadium, I run into Joe Thomas, a native of Atlanta’s Ormewood Park. He, like half of the other folks outside, has on an Atlanta United scarf.
When Atlanta United came about, he appreciated that the team didn’t attempt to make it anything else.
“They didn’t try to force a culture upon the city or anything like that,” Thomas told me. “They said Atlanta is a place that we should already want to be. There’s a passionate fan base, people that just love their city — let’s take that energy and focus it on a sports team. Play Jeezy and OutKast and all that.
“I played soccer,” he continued. “I’d love to hear Jeezy and OutKast before I play.”
Thomas compared the Atlanta United experience to Georgia Bulldogs football games when it came to passion. Down here, that’s the highest compliment you could give, but he also doesn’t think that the success of Atlanta United isn’t entirely about sports.
“Atlanta loves Atlanta, right? So if you create something new in Atlanta, people are going to get behind you,” he said.
“Atlanta supports its own.”
“The stadium, look at it,” Dominguez says to me. “That’s one of the best, I mean, in the whole world right now.”
This was my second time in the stadium, which replaced the Georgia Dome after 26 years. The Dome held Falcons games, college football games, SEC and ACC basketball tournaments and Final Fours, Monster Jams, WrestleMania, Georgia State University graduations, and countless other events.
If you are from the metro Atlanta area, you’ve got at least one memory in that building. You’re also going to miss it and will be sad when it’s torn down next month.
But damn if Mercedes-Benz ain’t a beautiful piece of architecture:
One of the best things done to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and for Atlanta United was building it with soccer in mind. On game days, you can’t tell that there’s an NFL team that plays here.
All of the paint from when the Falcons occupy the stadium once a week is also completely gone. When Georgia State played in the Georgia Dome, you could still see remnants of Falcons paint on the field, and it never quite felt like home for the Panthers.
But this feels like home — Atlanta United’s home.
“It makes it your own,” Skate told me prior to AUFC’s regular-season game against Minnesota United. “On our game day it’s our house. On their game day it’s their house. And then when it’s a concert — when it’s Garth Brooks in a couple weeks — it’s his house. It’s the beauty of this building, and that’s how it was designed.”
Skate then started looking around at the empty seats before the start of the match.
“I get nervous,” she said, looking at the time, eyes scanning the crowd. “I still get nervous that nobody’s going to show up — but they do.”
On the night of the playoff game, I make my way up to the top level of the stadium, where there’s a ridiculously large pillar of an LED screen that features the Atlanta United and Columbus Crew SC logos. A United fan is walking by texting on his phone when he comes upon it. It’s grabbed his attention, and he has a hilarious surprised look on his face.
He gently caresses it with one hand as he walks by in amazement. It’s that kind of pretty.
As I make my way back down to the 100 level prior to kickoff, I hear a familiar sound of a combination of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones.
Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know” is playing over the Mercedes-Benz Stadium speakers as the Atlanta United starting lineup is announced on the halo board — which is a trillion times more impressive in person.
The stadium isn’t nearly full at kickoff, but it’s not supposed to be, even though we are in the postseason here. With a 7 p.m. kickoff, rush hour is just now starting to kind of die down in the metro area. Sitting in traffic in Atlanta feels like a centuries-old tradition that you really can’t even get mad about. It’s just a part of our lives and if you don’t plan around it, well, be a better Atlantan.
Ten minutes into the match, there are tons of people running down the aisles to get to their seats.
There have hardly been moments I’ve been at an Atlanta sporting event and gotten chills. The two moments that come to mind are Jason Heyward’s first career home run, and Bobby Cox’s last game managing the Braves.
However, just the atmosphere of Atlanta United games and the fans did that. The players walking onto the pitch feels like something straight out of a sports movie. There are lights that illuminate the players as they come out of the tunnel, and flames to meet them when they emerge.
During the match, fans were doing their “A-T-L” chant, where they hold their hands over their heads like doing the “y” in “YMCA.” A shiver went down my spine as the chant picked up the pace.
Late in the match, everyone in the stadium pulled out their phones and flashed their camera lights in the air to show unity for the team, with hopes of rallying them to victory.
The collective participation during chants throughout the match made this feel like a unique experience in Atlanta professional sports. It’s something that — whether or not you’re a fan of soccer — you should experience as a resident of this city.
You’ll feel right at home, whether or not you have any idea of what’s going on between the lines.
The Atlanta United experience was a little bit of everything. It feels like part of a new era in Atlanta sports where everything isn’t just terrible. The city has a new team — in the world’s most popular sport — that’s competing and brings a different element to the city, feeding a group of people who were otherwise starving for high-quality soccer.
It also had that Atlanta heartbreak. In the knockout game against Columbus Crew SC that went the distance to penalty kicks, Atlanta lost. Much like traffic, we’re used to this.
In talking with Skate three weeks ago, I brought up how we were nearly eight months removed from the Super Bowl. She cut me off and said, “We try not to talk about that in this building,” she said with a nervous laugh. “It’s like lightning will come down and ka-choom.”
But I continued and mentioned that between the new stadium, the Falcons having an immensely talented team, the Braves being midway through a rebuild and Atlanta United FC being a success, it felt like this could be a new era starting for Atlanta — one where outsiders will stop saying that this is a bad sports town with citizens who don’t support their teams.
One that, as a lifelong Atlanta sports fan, I was excited for and proud to call mine.
But it’s also representative of what the city itself is, beyond sports.
“There’s something about the energy,” Sonia Sequeira, an Atlanta transplant from Denver who regularly attends games, told me. “Other sports teams in Atlanta have some diversity, but not like this.”
Deion Young, a native of Fayetteville, felt that the city’s adoption and welcoming of the team has been easy. “People just come from different states, and they come to Atlanta and they can adopt this game of soccer like it’s nothing. It’s pretty cool.”
Another fan, Ken Suffern added, “This is something you can get behind. A lot of people here are transplants. They may come here with their teams from other cities, whereas this is something that was built with us.
“So regardless of whether a transplant or not — this is yours.”