How has Atlanta United’s popularity affected high school soccer in metro Atlanta?
Reflection on this question could not be done without reflecting on the recent history of professional soccer in Atlanta. While I am a fairly recent transplant to the area, arriving in 1999, I was aware of previous professional teams from having former teammates and friends play or coach for some of Atlanta’s various iterations, as well as playing against their indoor component myself when I played on a similar team, the Chattanooga Express.
The Atlanta Chiefs
Since Atlanta has emerged as a true international city in recent years, the profile of soccer has grown in the area. The largest impact from this early era — the late 1960s to early 1980s — came from the Atlanta Chiefs, Atlanta’s NASL team, which won the league championship in 1968 and were runners-up in 1969 and 1971.
The NASL was the first soccer league to have national impact, having famous foreign players come over and ply their trade in the U.S. Other notable teams such as the New York Cosmos, Los Angeles Aztecs and Tampa Bay Rowdies all helped to push soccer forward. The Chiefs were early champions in the league and the best league commissioner, Phil Woosnam, was their former manager.
Perhaps the best memory of the team is that they beat Manchester City twice in international club friendlies. According to ussoccerplayers.com, “The team even went as far as to use a woman on horseback around the city’s streets declaring, ‘The British are coming! The British are coming!’” The team “gained unprecedented coverage in the sports pages.”
Atlanta’s Olympics and the Silverbacks
The Chiefs’ demise left Atlanta without a real soccer presence, which was not filled until Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics in 1996. Soccer was given a big boost with the championship game being held at UGA’s Sanford Stadium. This led to new attempts for Atlanta to have a professional team, and they were in the running to have one of the original 10 MLS franchises. When this petered out, Atlanta forged ahead with many various semiprofessional teams, with the most prominently known team being the Atlanta Silverbacks.
Notable facts from that era include making it to the league championship in 2007; having former U.S. World Cup stars play or coach for them (John Doyle and Bruce Murray as players and Eric Wynalda as a coach); and having a former member of the 1994 Bulgarian World Cup team that reached the semifinals (Velko Yotov).
With all of this said, the Silverbacks went the way of all the other professional soccer attempts and suspended operations in January of 2016.
This brings us to the story of Atlanta United, which has well exceeded all expectations for success. The “Five Stripes” have led the league in attendance since their start and they show no signs of slowing down.
While the city’s previous professional teams had their good days of support, they all struggled to find a lasting fan base beyond the ardent soccer supporters, and this was a main reason they did not last. They simply were not able to build a connection to the city, and this is where Atlanta United has changed the soccer dynamic.
It does help that they are investing in the local soccer scene and have brought in some young local talent, including Andrew Carlton, Lagos Kunga and George Bello, who currently play on their reserve team. Kunga was a member of Paideia School’s 2014 state championship team.
With all of this said, Atlanta United’s greatest impact is having made soccer “cool” beyond its normal supporter realm. This has filtered its way down to the high schools, as kids from all sports backgrounds are now supportive of the team. While I am a soccer coach at heart, I also help coach ninth-grade football and work the clock at the varsity basketball games, and I see as many kids wearing United gear as I do with my soccer team.
Younger fans support United not because they necessarily love soccer as much as because Atlanta United is cool. This in turn has had a ripple effect on the sport as a whole. The student base is much more knowledgeable about the sport in general and this has made them more willing to come support their classmates during the high school season.
Scott Snyder is the varsity boys’ soccer coach at The Westminster Schools.