Atlanta is all about that soccer culture The city has embraced the sport from the stadium to the street
Atlanta is all about that soccer culture The city has embraced the sport from the stadium to the street
The hip-hop capital of America is on its way to becoming the soccer capital of America as well. On Wednesday, FIFA awarded the United States, Canada and Mexico the 2026 World Cup, and Atlanta was as integral to the cause as any other city in the country. Now, with an MLS team sitting in first place, the league’s All-Star Game headed to the Dirty South, a training facility that rivals any team on the globe and a city that’s embraced the game from the stadium to the street, Atlanta is moving out soccer culture the same way it does its main export: blackness.
It’s Monday morning in Marietta, Georgia, in suburban Atlanta, and at Atlanta United’s training facility, the academy team is doing shooting and defensive spacing drills on what they call their show field, a turf pitch with 2,500 black and red seats for fans to watch this second-year MLS team practice.
Outside on the deck of the pavilion looking over Field 3, parents watch their sons train under the guidance of academy director Tony Annan. “The staff call me the Hammer,” he says. “Because someone has to be the disciplinarian, so I set the tone for the academy.”
In a full 11s drill, Annan isn’t the nicest man on earth. He scolds a goalkeeper for picking a ball up for no reason. “That’s just pure laziness,” he says. “That’s all it is.” But, he’s also the guy who didn’t know that Boomerang was an app, so when he tried to mimic the effect by waving his phone from side to side and didn’t understand what he was doing wrong, he wore it when they finally told him why they were all laughing at his efforts. If he didn’t let them get their digs in either, when he’d go to actually get on them for a mistake, they’d already be tuned out.
He’s somewhere between a father figure and a principal. He’s not so old that he can’t do the drills himself as needed to demonstrate. George Campbell, a tall fullback from Atlanta, is having a rough day, and Annan is letting him know. He’s also riding Jackson Conway, who once made SportsCenter with a goal, telling him that if he can’t do this at game speed, he’ll shut the drill down for everyone. They’ve got a game coming up against the Columbus Crew’s developmental team in Nashville, Tennessee, so these are match preps and the intensity matters.
Atlanta United was the first MLS team to start an academy before its first team actually took the field in the league, and the quality of its development operation is nothing short of top-notch. At the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, there are six fields and individual locker rooms for each one of the sides, including the developmental squads all the way down to U12. Along with a classic, modern-day bootroom, a sun-soaked cafeteria (the tomato soup is a real hit) that plays Fox Sports 1 all day and a workout room with a retractable wall that would put any SoulCycle in America to shame, this place is full-blown sparkling.
In the halls, pictures of memorable moments hang everywhere, even in the squads’ short history. A photo of rapper Rich Homie Quan hammering in the golden spike, a pregame tradition, is particularly prominent. It happened at Georgia Tech, where the team used to play, before Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened. The video of that day is hilarious, if you haven’t seen it, btw.
“We try and use our diversity to try and create players,” Annan explains. He came to Atlanta from England in 1995 and never left. “It’s difficult to create a culture. It’s probably the hardest thing to do. Would I say we’ve got our culture right? No. We’re far from it. So where we are now, we’re in a good place. The kids are committed, they’re in a good place, they understand what it takes to become a professional player. So we brought in the guys that went professional and asked them what an Atlanta United player looks like, what it feels like and what do they appear to be when they’re on the global stage. The first word that came out was: fearless.”
Atlanta as a city, however, is quite the place. You’ve got quite a few talent pools to draw on from a demographics standpoint, and youth soccer culture in Georgia was certainly not nonexistent when Atlanta United showed up.
“If you look at our teams, the diversity of the team definitely added to the success of our team when we won a [developmental] championship straight out of the gate, which obviously we set the bar really high. You can’t have one type of athlete on the team. You need a mixed bag. The community provides us power, it provides us athleticism, it provides smarts. We have some very, very intelligent players who don’t fit the normal athletic prowess [model]. We’re very fortunate. We’re in a city of 6.8 million people, and it provides us with a really good base of players. So we’re not looking as far afield as some MLS academies to find all the players in open territories,” Annan said.
Have they dug in to the depth of the inner cities and pulled out gems that will eventually lead to the U.S. becoming a World Cup power? No, but we’re not there yet. But considering the couple million bucks that owner Arthur Blank has already poured into this space, never mind the first team itself to operate, the effort is valiant. These kids still live at home. When asking one player what he was doing after practice since they had some down time, he replied candidly with a shrug, “I have to go. My mom’s here.”
Annan estimates that creating a boarding situation, in which you could then really start to affect the lives of the kids in the most impactful way, would probably double the cost of operation. And in a place like Atlanta, where we’re not just talking about poor black kids in the “ghetto” environments you see on TV but also many young Latinos, whose parents are working on farms of all types around Georgia. A live-in situation could really bear fruit if managed and executed properly.
That said, the kids have the opportunity to really become special players, which isn’t lost on them. I sat down with three players on the U17 squad who represent that swath of culture. Conway was born in England but has lived here effectively his whole life. His grandfather played in the old country, and a part of him still feels like he represents that lineage. Takuma Suzuki is Japanese, and he made the decision to come to America to play as a kid with his parents. Campbell is a young black man whose family played soccer in college and moved to Atlanta when he was in ninth grade, and he is probably the tallest player on the pitch most times he plays.
“Watching the U.S. and seeing Josh Sargent and Tim Weah score [in a 3-0 friendly rout of Bolivia earlier that week], you know it was you, but it still makes you smile because it’s only, like, a year and a half away,” Conway says. “Just to see what they’ve done, it’s crazy. It’s definitely good for our generation. It’s something I can look forward to.”
“I think especially ATLU, better than most other MLS teams, have given us as players who’ve earned a good spot on the team other opportunities like playing with the first team, or recommendations to national camp. They give us good opportunities to excel outside of just the club,” Campbell says. “One of my personal goals in life is to play in a World Cup, so I’d like to see my country succeed.”
“No team in Japan has this level of facilities,” Suzuki says, referring to the youth level in particular. His friends in Japan marvel at his soccer career. “They can’t believe what I’m getting from the team. Cleats, clothes, grass fields. They don’t have grass fields.”
Later that day, I’m sitting at the Five Points MARTA station eating a three-piece spicy from Popeyes watching players knock around a turf pitch. Developed through a program called Soccer In The Streets, which looks to spread the game through activating spaces that allow more people, specifically children, to play, thus growing the game. This newest iteration, Station Soccer, was created with the idea of making safe, accessible spaces for kids and family because of its centralization around a transportation system. It opened in October 2016. So far it’s the only one built, but they’re hoping to eventually expand to 10 fields by 2020.
On this day, there’s a game happening between some team called The Misfits and another squad. The footy isn’t anything special. The demographics break down to a bunch of white people, a couple of brothers and a few fans. It’s official enough to apparently warrant a ref, but this isn’t exactly street soccer or the five-a-side matchups you’d see in Nike commercials. The nets are metal, though, adding an element of grittiness to the already rather grimy train station setting. A quasi dicey throw-in spot leads to a goal, which also leads to an argument with a ref. In the second game, a cheeky backheel leads to a devastating hamstring cramp. One guy decides he wants to push a dude to the ground, garnering some jeers from the crowd. “It’s just one soccer game,” the ref tells him.
After league ends, pickup begins. About 30 guys have showed up to play six-minute halves. Ronaldinho and Mo Salah are represented jerseywise, and it’s all dudes. The age range is pretty wide, and these dudes clearly are all friends in some way or another. Sometimes they pay $5 to donate to the kids to play, sometimes they don’t. Guys of all creeds are out here, and they use the Meetup app to see who’s going to show.
Trent Jackson is from Chicago, originally, but moved to Atlanta when he was in high school. He didn’t start playing soccer until he was 18. He gravitated toward the game through his Latino and Caribbean friends in high school.
“I think it’s getting better, and it’s getting a lot of diverse people from different areas of the world. I think it’s tight. Everybody’s like cool and friendly,” Jackson says. “I think we can do good in it. I like seeing other blacks play, and finding an interest, instead of other stereotypical sports. You know, we can play soccer as well.” As for Atlanta United, he’s a fan. “It’s lit man, it’s tight. Everybody’s friendly, and it’s a lot of energy, even when they lose. I’m really glad we have a team. It’s not always about the Falcons and s—.” He’s rooting for Belgium in the World Cup.
Brian Girard was the ref who told the other guy to calm down during the league match. He’s played soccer his whole life, including Georgia’s travel and club ball circuit, and was a serious player, no doubt. He says Atlanta United has highlighted the youth scene that was already here, helping make the game more mainstream. “It’s a little different for me. My parents are St. Lucian, so I’ve always been around black players. Atlanta’s not the same as most cities,” Girard says, noting that he saw black players in large part from a much earlier age. “Every team I’ve had, at least five to six players have been black, and that’s a lot.”
When it comes to Atlanta United, though, he’s honest. Girard’s love of the game didn’t come from MLS’s arrival into town. “I really don’t [support them]. I’m not an Atlanta United supporter, but for the most part I like what they’ve brought to the city. I have a friend right now who plays for the team, George Bello. He grew up with us in Douglas County. It’s been a soccer culture here. It enhanced for the mainstream, but everybody’s been playing soccer in Atlanta.” He thinks either France or Brazil will win the World Cup.
They play until the sun goes down and will probably reconvene next week and thereafter as weather allows.
Bello is a 16-year-old kid who grew up in Atlanta and is very proud of his Nigerian heritage. He, Lagos Kunga and Chris Goslin are three black teenagers who play on Atlanta United’s first team. They’re not grizzled beyond their years or anything like that, just fun-loving kids who happen to be extremely excellent players. They’re not old enough to really stunt as professional athletes, never mind rich enough.
“When Atlanta United was made, I was kinda like, ‘Uhhhh, should I do this?’ because I was always used to club soccer. It was a family decision to come here,” Bello said. “We just felt that it was best for the development part of it and that it would mature me to a better soccer player, because club soccer wouldn’t do that for me. For future references, it was a better choice.”
Kunga’s story is incredible, a kid from Angola who moved to Russia before finally settling in Georgia. He played in Russia for fun in a village outside of Moscow, and now he’s a professional player.
“I didnt take soccer seriously until maybe U16? That’s when I was like I could possibly go pro. I just didn’t know how. I see people going to Europe and we didn’t have a team at the time, and then when Atlanta United came that was real good,” Kunga said. “At that age as a young player, I feel like young players don’t know that it’s a lot more than what you see on TV. You see 11 guys just playing. You have to go to training every day; it surprised me too. If you don’t train you get fined, like, it’s a job, you know? You can’t say, ‘Oh I’m sick today, I can’t come.’ When I was playing in [high school] I was hurt, I didn’t have to come to practice. You still have to do treatment. You don’t expect that when you’re young.”
They’re still young, but they’re enjoying their time. The league itself is older than both of them, never mind their careers. “I don’t think MLS was this popular back then. But now? I didn’t know that Atlanta was a soccer state or city at all. When ATL U came in and all these fans, it’s crazy to think that soccer could do this to a city,” Bello said.
Which is something that Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United, is happy to see after taking a risk in his own career to help make it happen. He came to this country in the ’90s to play Division I soccer for West Virginia University, then Brown University. He was the Ivy League Player of the year in his senior season and a first-team All-American. After his professional career washed out, he returned to England to study law. From there, he somewhat pioneered the role of being in-house legal counsel for Tottenham Hotspur, eventually rising to the ranks of director of football administration, a reasonably plum gig in the Premiership ranks, considering.
“The only thing that people told me to watch out for is that Atlanta is a fickle sports town,” Eales said. “There was this feeling that, whether it was the Thrashers who’d come and gone (Atlanta lost another NHL team, the Flames, to Calgary in 1980) to, you know, Falcons, Hawks, Braves, and half the stadium being the team from abroad. And I was very aware that there was this perception.”
But Arthur Blank’s presence was half the reason why this has worked out. And also the reason why Eales would ever consider leaving a club like Spurs to go join an NFL owner’s pet project. “A big question for me when I came was, is Arthur doing this because he believes in soccer in Atlanta or is he doing it to be a little brother to the Falcons and fill the stadium?” Eales said. “Right from the very start, I came into the interview and key people across all of his business were there, and that said to me this is for real.”
It costs more money to make the dome soccer-specific each week than it would have to eventually just build another smaller stadium. Point being, Blank wanted his brands to be cohesive but also to not limit what could be growth potential for his footy squad. And, according to the team, the numbers so far bear out that logic.
- In 2018, Atlanta United broke the league’s single-game attendance record for the third time, welcoming 72,035 fans to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on March 11. It was the fourth-largest soccer crowd in the entire world that weekend. Atlanta set the league record twice in 2017, first against Orlando City SC (Sept. 16) with 70,425 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A month later (Oct. 22), the club broke its own record with 71,784 fans against Toronto FC.
- In 2018, Atlanta United leads MLS in average attendance at 48,401 fans. No other MLS team this season averages more than 40,000 fans, and only one other team, Seattle, averages more than 30,000. Atlanta United’s average ranks 24th worldwide and is more than internationally recognized clubs such as Chelsea, Everton, Hertha Berlin, PSG, Lyon, Marseille, Juventus and Napoli.
- In 2017, Atlanta United led MLS in average attendance with 48,200. The MLS average attendance in 2017 (leaguewide) was 22,106. Atlanta’s attendance was higher than every MLS, NBA, NHL and MLB team in 2017 and would rank sixth in the English Premier League.
- In 2017, Atlanta became the first expansion team to qualify for MLS Cup Playoffs since 2009. Atlanta had the second-best goal differential in all of MLS at plus-30. The team finished second in MLS in goals (70) and third in goals allowed (40).
In other words, they’re balling.
The next morning, the lads board a bus to Nashville, Tennessee. Why? Because they needed a match before the playoffs started, and it’s about equidistant between Columbus and Atlanta. It’s hot as blazes, a few parents are there, and both the U17 and U19 are playing that afternoon. The bus trip that morning was exactly what you’d expect. A bunch of kids watch Naruto, and are listening to people like Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott and Scar Lord.
One kid has an offer from a school, and he’s looking at a pro career or college. Annan speaks candidly to him that he should take an official visit and that since he has so many East Coast programs interested, they’d have to really make it financially worth it for him to commit. He’s the only U19 player at the club not committed to a school. 33 out of 140 kids in the academy have gotten the national team call-up. Annan gets annoyed when his best players get called up for national duty during playoffs, but he wouldn’t ever stop a kid from having a go at a national team spot.
At one point they have to stop at the mall to kill time. It isn’t a glamorous life, but then again, they’re teenagers.
The U17s lost that day. A decent effort that was a tale of two halves, highlighted by the fact that the team hadn’t really played competitively in two weeks and this was effectively a playoff warm-up. But in a world in which sinking mega dollars into contracts, academies and facilities feels like something borderline un-American for a culture and system that depends so heavily on the school system to support sports. You start to wonder at what cost the concept of development takes over what is winning and how to achieve that balance without wasting everyone’s time.
It’s a question that the USMNT is dealing with. It’s a question that MLS has answered relatively well as a league conceptually. Is growth important? Where does landing the best players in the world rank on that scale? The complicated matrix of what constitutes success is not an easy one to navigate. For Annan, though, the answer is obvious if you’ve done the work on the back end to ensure a solid experience to create the best people, never mind players.
“You can’t win at all costs. You can’t abandon the way you play. But part of development is learning how to fight through to win a game. That’s part of their development as youth that will carry them through as a pro,” he points out. “Winning is development.”