Sports

Atlanta United's 'mind-blowing' new home

Expansion MLS team plays in Mercedes-Benz Stadium

(CNN) - Atlanta United's Trinidadian striker replies almost instantly. "Absolutely mind-blowing," he says with a smile.

Kenwyne Jones is describing what it feels like to be a player in his club's brand new, state-of-the-art stadium.

The 33-year-old is what a seasoned football fan would call a journeyman striker. Since 2004, the Trinidad & Tobago international has mainly played in England, most notably with Sunderland, Stoke City, and Southampton.

He has also represented his country on the biggest stage of them all: The World Cup. So it's safe to say that Jones has been there, and done that.

But it speaks volumes for the rapid rise of MLS newcomers Atlanta, that when he tries to sum up the experience as a player in their $1.5 billion Mercedes Benz Stadium, in a team the talk of the football world, that he's been blown away by the experience.

Success story

One of two new additions to Major League Soccer this season, along with Minnesota United (who have not had nearly the same impact), Atlanta have taken to MLS as if they were 20-year veterans rather than scrappy upstarts.

On the field, with the regular season just finished, the Five Stripes ended up in fourth place, meaning they've secured a home game in the first round of the playoffs on Thursday in their attempt to win the MLS Cup in their debut season, a feat which has only been achieved once by an expansion side, Chicago Fire, in 1998.

Boasting the fourth-best goal difference in a single season in MLS history, Atlanta is a force to be reckoned with on and off the field.

Managed by Argentine Tata Martino, who had a certain Lionel Messi in his ranks for both club -- Barcelona -- and country, his charges have blended South American swagger up front with a steeliness at the back.

Josef Martinez of Venezuela and Paraguay's Miguel Almiron have lit up the league with goals and assists, while US veterans Brad Guzan and Michael Parkhurst have kept an American identity flowing through the side.

The hiring of Martino was arguably the most significant appointment made by the club and instantly turned them from a new franchise trying to find their feet into serious contenders.

It was a mightily impressive statement of intent from the club's owner, Arthur Blank, who craves success for both his NFL team, the Falcons, as well as being literally United behind his soccer franchise.

"It's been a great team effort," says Darren Eales, Atlanta United President, who was brought over from English Premier League heavyweights Tottenham Hotspur, where he was Director of Football Administration.

"It starts with Arthur Blank our owner, right at the very top who had a commitment to soccer in building this stadium, a $1.5 billion-dollar stadium -- but built just as much for soccer as it is for American football," continues Eales.

"And then the city of Atlanta has just got behind the team in the most incredible way. This year we've already had a crowd of over 70,000 against Orlando.

"We're averaging around, or are on track for, about 48,000, that would put us about 22nd in Europe ahead of teams like Paris Saint-Germain. So it's just amazing to see this happen in the city of Atlanta."

Record breakers

This past Sunday, the team broke their own record by eclipsing the Orlando attendance with a crowd of 71,874, who witnessed a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw against league leaders Toronto, which would have graced most of Europe's top leagues.

Among all attendances in global football that weekend, Atlanta's crowd was only eclipsed by two teams: Tottenham and Barcelona.

The season ticket holders have been beyond supportive -- literally -- with nearly 22,000 season seats sold in advance, resulting in the team becoming the sixth-best attended MLS team in history before a ball was even kicked (in total, Atlanta sold the most tickets in a season in MLS history with 819,404).

Since taking to the field in March 2017 -- playing at their temporary ground of nearby Bobby Dodd Stadium for the opening five months, while the finishing touches were put on their swanky new digs -- the club have now amassed more than 35,000 season ticket holders.

And by playing with such swagger, Eales is equally confident in stating that, "on any given day ... [Atlanta United] could give some of the teams in the Championship and lower Premier League a run for their money."

World Cup failure

The Toronto match marked the first time the team had played a home game since the US men's national team surprisingly missed out on a first World Cup since 1986.

Yet the feeling persists that Atlanta, as with much of MLS -- a league now in its third decade with 22 sides, set to announce another two new teams by year's end -- don't need the USMNT as much as they arguably once did.

Not only does the attractive brand of domestic football keep the fans returning, but in many regions of the country, including Atlanta, so much of the crowd are from other countries, where soccer is the main sport.

This means that the linking of US club to successful national results is a moot point (whether that's good for MLS and/or the USMNT is a topic for another time).

Yet it did not go unnoticed that Toronto's highest profile American players, the captain Michael Bradley and striker Jozy Altidore, were booed throughout.

"It's not going away anytime soon," says Altidore in the dressing room after the match -- while Atlanta's US goalkeeper Guzan received louder than usual cheers.

While Eales reiterates that the US not going to Russia "was a real missed opportunity ... this chance every four years to be able to bring that fence sitting fan into the fold is a missed opportunity," he's far more bullish than hesitant about the future.

"I think there is a danger in this call for radical change," he clarifies, referring to the clamor for US soccer to undertake a root and branch review.

"Things have happened over the last 10 years that are bearing fruit now and you can't expect it to happen instantly. So yes, I think there are some changes that can be made.

"But I do think there is a danger of saying 'panic stations -- let's change everything.'"

$2 hotdogs and craft beers

Atlanta are most certainly looking for continuity rather than change.

Their stadium is a wonder to behold, befitting of already being awarded the MLS All-Star Game for 2018, as well as the 2019 Super Bowl, and the eminently sensible pricing policy for food and drink -- $2 hotdogs! -- is here to stay.

The venue is simply breathtaking, resembling the sort of stadium you would design from scratch with your friends, if you could incorporate everyone's desires.

Craft beers jostle for space among the 1,264 beer taps in total. How about a window looking out on a downtown view of the city? Absolutely.

And what are the chances of having the world's largest video board, which if stretched out, would be longer than the Eiffel Tower? Consider it done.

The enormity of the accomplishment hasn't been lost on MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who admitted to CNN that success of this size wasn't on his radar.

"Frankly we didn't see what Atlanta would be as a great MLS city the way that Arthur Blank did," says Garber.

"When you connect all those dots it gave us something at Major League Soccer that we never really thought we'd be able to see, which is a big important market deep in the south of the United States that loves Major League Soccer in ways that are unprecedented."

To think that this is still a club in its infancy is nothing short of staggering.

In the words of Kenwyne Jones, "It's been amazing, we never thought that the fans here in Atlanta would have received the team like this and we've been overwhelmed from the very beginning."

Atlanta isn't exactly known as a city that lifts trophies. They can boast but one World Series title in baseball by the Atlanta Braves in 1995.

As recently as this year, the Falcons infamously blew a 28-3 lead to lose the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots.

But if the other football team -- who have become a paean to the beautiful game, backed by a passionate fanbase that worship them in this cathedral of sport -- wins the biggest prize in MLS in its debut season, there would only be one way to adequately describe the achievement.

Absolutely mind-blowing.


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