A billionaire owner, ex-Barca coach and crowds of 70,000 – the greatest debut season in history?


Brad Guzan (left) was relegated with both Aston Villa and Middlesbrough

Atlanta United may only be in their first year in existence, but their rapid growth has seen goalkeeper Brad Guzan getting recognised more now than he ever did in almost a decade in the Premier League.

In a city where American sports are king, Major League Soccer’s (MLS) newest team are breaking records on and off the pitch.

Atlanta’s first ever game was only seven months ago, but this season they broke the league’s attendance record twice, with 71,824 fans watching their 2-2 draw with Toronto at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.

A billionaire owner, a former Barcelona manager, a brand new futuristic stadium and a fanatical fanbase have helped turn Atlanta into the story of the season in the MLS.

It was a project that persuaded former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough shot-stopper Guzan to leave behind the Premier League and return to the United States.

He told BBC Sport: “If I’m being honest, I feel like I am getting recognised more so here than I did in England, in terms of going out to the grocery store or the shopping centre, the fans are really engaged and into the team.

“That might not seem a big thing for the rest of the world but for an MLS team and for MLS, that is a huge step.”

Atlanta, known as the Five Stripes, now have a realistic opportunity to win the MLS Cup (the play-offs to decide the league’s champions) in their first season and face Columbus Crew in the first round of the play-offs on Friday morning – British summer time.

The owner – Uncle Arthur

Arthur Blank is also the owner of NFL side Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta are owned by American businessman Arthur Blank, who is estimated to have a wealth of $3.9bn (£2.9bn).

The 75-year-old is the co-founder of the home improvement retailer Home Depot and is also the owner and chairman of the Atlanta Falcons in American football’s NFL, who also play at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

He had been working since 2008 to bring a top-flight football team to Atlanta and on 16 April 2014, the MLS awarded Blank an expansion franchise, to begin playing in 2017, as the league’s 22nd team.

Former Tottenham executive director Darren Eales was appointed president, while ex-Fulham and Rangers defender Carlos Bocanegra was made technical director.

Fans wish owner Arthur Blank a happy birthday

Guzan had suffered back-to-back relegations from the Premier League with Villa and Boro, before joining Atlanta in the summer, with the deal agreed in January.

“I was at Middlesbrough and at the time things weren’t great in terms of my personal situation,” said the 33-year-old. “I had always known I wanted to come back to the MLS at some point in my career, I just didn’t know when that time was.

“You hopefully become stronger with the difficult times you go through. I do not have any regrets, I enjoyed my time in the UK.

“When the talks started and I was speaking with Darren and Carlos, seeing the project they were putting together here in Atlanta, it excited me.

“We would be able to leave our stamp on things and be able to essentially start from scratch and build it from the bottom up. That was a unique situation.”

Speaking about Blank, Guzan added: “He has helped transform the city in terms of the sports world, the fans really love him. To play for someone who is fully invested makes it easier to go about doing your job as a player.”

Record-breaking fans

Atlanta United share the stunning Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with a roof design based on the Pantheon in Rome
  • Before the season had even started, Atlanta had sold 30,000 season tickets.
  • They lost their first MLS game 2-1 to the New York Red Bulls at Bobby Dodd Stadium on 5 March, with 55,297 in attendance, with Argentine Yamil Asad becoming their first goalscorer.
  • The club moved to the newly opened $1.5bn Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the second half of the season.
  • They set a new attendance record against Orlando City on 16 September, before breaking it again against Toronto.
  • Their average attendance this season has been 48,200, a new record for the US, topping the New York Cosmos’ average of 47,856 in 1978.
Atlanta has the highest average attendance in the MLS

Atlanta average more fans per game than 13 of the teams in this season’s Premier League.

“The growth of the club has been phenomenal,” said Guzan. “To see 48,000 for every home game and a few times shade over 70,000, you do not get that in some places around the world. To have it here in MLS speaks volumes about the fanbase and support, in terms of everyone coming on board in such a short space of time.

“You never know how much support the club is going to get, especially in the MLS, so to have that from day one is truly remarkable.”

The club have reserved their number 17 shirt and dedicated it to the fans and the city. The number is a nod to the club’s inaugural MLS season in 2017

Englishman Eales told the BBC’s World Football Show: “We were optimistic we would be one of the bigger expansion teams, but I don’t think any of us expected how the city and state would get behind the team.

“To average over 48,000 in the first season is pretty incredible for a team playing in North America – it is about 22nd in the world in average attendances.”

Kevin Kinley, from the ‘The Faction’, one of four fans’ groups, added: “We have been waiting on this for so long. Soccer fans have been hungry for something to pull for, now we have our own team, it has brought so many people out of the woodwork.

“There are tonnes of fans that have never even seen a soccer game, that come to the stadium, they embrace the atmosphere and join in the chants. They enjoy the full atmosphere of an American soccer game.”

A few familiar faces

Gerardo Martino has managed Newell’s Old Boys, Argentina, Paraguay and Barcelona

Atlanta are managed by former Argentina and Barcelona boss Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, while their team includes former Premier League players Kenwyne Jones, Tyrone Mears and Anton Walkes, who is on loan from Tottenham.

Martino, 54, told the BBC’s World Football Show what attracted him to the club.

He said: “Fundamentally to be able to participate in the birth of a club, to implement a style of play, to choose the players ourselves, be here from the beginning, it was a great opportunity I wanted to take advantage of.

“From the first meeting I knew I was making the right decision.”

English defender Walkes, 20, says he had no reservations over his loan move. “I could tell the ambition of the club was to get in the position where we are now, and push on,” he said. “I saw the ambition and it was something I was keen on straight away.

“The first time I got there I was lost for words. You are making lifelong memories which will stick with you until you are an old man.”

Trinidad & Tobago striker Kenwyne Jones played for Southampton, Stoke, Sunderland and Cardiff

Guzan said: “We try to play attractive football, having a manager like Tata, who has an unbelievable resume in terms of working with some of the world’s best players. We try to give the fans something to cheer about and so when we do that, it is easy for them to get on board.”

Speaking about his team-mates, he added: “All these guys came together for the first time, everyone is a new face, because the team didn’t exist last year. It’s special to see how well we have done and come together in a short period of time.

“Part of the excitement is to be a part of a new adventure and put together an exciting football club for the city and for the fans.”

‘Raising the bar’

Atlanta are the first expansion team in eight years to reach the play-offs in their debut season

Atlanta finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, becoming just the fourth expansion team in league history to qualify for the play-offs and the first in eight years to reach the play-offs in their debut season.

“It’s no longer about trying to make it work,” said Guzan. “We know it is going to work. The attendance, the support has been phenomenal. To have that and set new standards here in the MLS, to really see how we have raised the bar, shows how great the city has been.

“No-one expected the support and how great it’s been from this first year, for other teams and for other technical staff around the league, to see what we are doing here is pretty special.

“It is nice at the moment to be experiencing good times with fans at Atlanta and we want to make sure we keep the good times going.

“The season is not over yet. We want to try to make a real run at the MLS Cup and play-offs and who’s to say we cannot ultimately win it?”

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