Soccer in The South: Love affair with Atlanta United "makes no sense"
ATLANTA -- No matter how much you try to give somebody an accurate description of what happens during home matches for the Atlanta United, you can't.
I'll try, though.
Imagine a nonstop party involving tens of thousands of people with soccer unfolding nearby.
You have all of those cleverly timed chants.
You have folks with painted faces.
You have the wild outfits.
It's fun, and few would disagree. In fact, as has been the case since the Atlanta United came into existence last year as a Major League Soccer expansion team, you might see an empty spot inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday when the Five Stripes (Atlanta United's nickname) take the artificial surface against New York Red Bulls, but probably not. "Atlanta United" and "sellouts" have become synonymous. And I haven't even mentioned the Five Stripes are the MLS's best team at 8-2-1, with their attacking style producing more goals and cheers than anybody in the league.
This makes no sense.
None of it.
Atlanta people traditionally don't support anything like this for long stretches unless it involves barking during college football season. This is Georgia Bulldogs Country, period. Then again, this is a city that gets infatuated with whatever is hot at the moment, ranging from hip-hop artists to trendy nightclubs to crazy hairstyles.
Such also has been the way for Atlanta folks and their sports teams for the years. They discovered the Braves during the early 1990s when the tomahawk chop appeared, along with pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, manager Bobby Cox and third baseman Chipper Jones, all Baseball Hall of Famers. They weren't Falcons fans as much as they were Deion Sanders fans or Dirty Bird fans or Michael Vick fans. They were into Dominique Wilkins, but the rest of the Hawks, not so much.
Now comes this Atlanta United mania throughout northern Georgia, and here's the thing: With MLS-record crowds of more then 70,000 and a commitment (and the money) from owner Arthur Blank to keep his franchise vibrant for the long run, the Five Stripes feel like the real deal courtesy of legendary manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino and gifted players everywhere.
Suddenly, I'm hearing the 40-something-year-old words of Jim Montgomery. He was my first sports editor for a professional newspaper after I graduated from Miami (Ohio) University in 1978 and began working for the Cincinnati Enquirer.
For a little perspective on where I'm going, Cincinnati is a huge baseball town since the Reds became the first pro team in 1869 (and I came to the newspaper during the reign of the Big Red Machine, the greatest baseball team of all-time). Even so, southern Ohio is a diverse sports area, ranging from a love of college sports to that of horse racing.
Montgomery's words . . .
"The only way soccer will get into my sports section will be if they change the rules and allow landmines on the field."
He didn't like soccer. Neither did a slew of Americans back then, at least when compared to their counterparts around the rest of the world, where "football" only becomes magic when you mention the name Pele as opposed to Lombardi.
Times have changed. For verification, that Viking War Chant of Iceland is now deep in the heart of Dixie.
A (clap) . . . T (clap) . . . L (clap) . . .
A (clap) . . T (clap) . . L (clap) . . .
A (clap) . T (clap) . L (clap)
CLAP, CLAP, CLAP.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, I've walked the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium before Atlanta United matches.