When 20,000-plus fans fill the lower bowl of TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday evening for Minnesota United’s final home match of its inaugural MLS season, the crowd won’t be as loud as the 43,185 voices the Loons heard Tuesday inside Atlanta United’s roofed Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But it will be louder for longer because Loons supporters tend to chant nonstop for the full 90 minutes.
“Their fans were great, and they had a ton of people in there,” Loons center back Brent Kallman said of Atlanta. “But they don’t have the singing and the fan culture, I don’t think, yet that we already have established.”
In that area, Minnesota United, which clings to a minuscule chance of making the playoffs, has something on fellow first-year expansion team Atlanta United. That, and the two teams split their head-to-head meetings this season. But in many other aspects, Atlanta United has set a new precedent for expansion teams by clinching a playoff spot and breaking attendance records in its debut.
Upon arriving at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Atlanta United advertisements run on digital billboards in the terminals. Walking around downtown Atlanta’s Peachtree Center, a shoeshine stand sports an Atlanta United flag and towels hanging from its railing. All are signs that this new team has already built a presence in the city.
“When you are in Atlanta, especially downtown Atlanta, you can feel the team when you’re in that city,” said Dan Courtemanche, MLS’ executive vice president of communications. “And that is extremely impressive for a market of that size.”
Atlanta United leads the league in attendance, averaging 46,956 per match, and set the league’s single-match attendance record of 70,425 on Sept. 16. On the pitch, the club is third in the Eastern Conference, just the fourth expansion team to make the postseason and already one of the top four offenses in MLS history for goals and goal differential.
How Atlanta United achieved that success right from the start essentially comes down to spending money to make money.
While Minnesota United had about six months from officially joining the league last year until its first match, Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank, of Home Depot and Atlanta Falcons fame, started conversations about joining MLS back in 2004. He even submitted an expansion bid in 2008 before pulling out for stadium reasons.
Since being awarded a franchise in 2014, the club strategically planned its debut, starting with hiring club President Darren Eales from English Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur and former U.S. national team captain Carlos Bocanegra as technical director.
“Arthur was prepared to invest in resources in advance of the launch,” Eales said. “Arthur understood right from the very start that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So he understood that this was about launching the team on the right footing.”
Atlanta put many pieces in place ahead of its first MLS match. The club started its youth academy and United Soccer League affiliation a year before its first season. It talked with fellow MLS clubs in Seattle, New England and Toronto about their shared-platform models with other pro sports teams, as Atlanta would be doing with the Falcons. It built a new stadium and training facility that would open in 2017.
And most important, it took the time to develop its roster in a technical way: signing young players with star potential and coaches who fit into the fast and exciting style of play the club wanted.
With 12 groups currently vying for four spots in MLS’ next round of expansion, Eales said Atlanta has set the standard of investing, one that will give new teams the best chance for success.
But in the end, Atlanta was a bit of a stars-aligning — or rather, resources-aligning — moment between time and money.
“Arthur Blank is a visionary owner who was dedicated to building a club that would be successful on and off the field, and they’ve delivered above and beyond anybody’s expectations,” Courtemanche said. “They’re arguably the sports team of the year and arguably the most successful launch of an expansion team in any sport in a long, long time.”