It has been nearly two weeks since Atlanta United FC hoisted the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy as MLS Cup Champions. At the end of last week, one of my favorite daily sports shows/podcasts Soccer Down Here asked fans to share their favorite memories from the postseason run.
That question stirred something in me. I did not feel that I could adequately express my feelings about the playoff success without filling in all of the reasons this team has captured my heart. And I definitely could not put that into 280 characters on Twitter.
So here I sit at my computer now, pounding the keys to try and put into words the past several years that led me to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 8, 2018. Perhaps no one else will ever see this, read it, or care about it, but this is therapy for me. This is a passion project.
Come along for the ride with me at your own risk.
History with Soccer
I did not grow up playing soccer. I do have a “card” from the one season I did play when I was, I am guessing, five-ish years old. But my first real soccer memories came from watching several friends who played for my high school’s team.
Enter World Cup 2002.
The summer before my senior year, I watched televised soccer for the first time in my memory. The World Cup is such a great entry point for people who are not overly familiar with soccer because of the sheer amount of matches you can watch in a condensed period. That was it. I was hooked.
From there, I needed to chose a club team to follow. Since I only really knew about the Premier League and did not want to be any part of the Manchester United bandwagon that was rampant in those days, I chose Chelsea FC as my first soccer love.
A First Taste of MLS
As I went off to college, I met, and ultimately lived with, a soccer player at my school. This was the season of my life in which I became a much more active soccer fan. I would come to matches. I would paint up. I would make yellow and red cards out of poster board to “help” out the referees at times. I fell in love with watching the game live.
During my senior, after he had graduated but was still living at our apartment taking graduate classes, my roommate was signed to play for the Cincinnati Kings. During his time there that season, he was loaned to the Columbus Crew for a brief period of time. This was my first real taste of Major League Soccer.
I did not stick with following MLS after that season as I never really found myself invested with the crew. A few years later, the Seattle Sounders joined the league. I LOVED their color scheme (I now love it even more thanks to my Greenville Triumph!!!) and decided that could be my team, with one caveat: if there was ever a team in the SOUTH (Florida is not the south) then my allegiance would automatically flip.
I only followed the Sounders on the periphery for a few season, never really watching on a consistent basis. Then, one day, in 2014, I heard the news I had been waiting for…the SOUTH was getting a team in Atlanta.
The Birth of Atlanta United
As someone who grew up outside of Knoxville, TN, and now lives in Greenville, SC, I have never had a “local” professional sports team to cheer for. My fandom spans the country across the different sports that I follow. But there is something different to me about being a soccer fan.
The ability to watch a soccer match in person completely changes the experience. It is something that few understand until they allow themselves to attend a match and take it in. For me, soccer fandom is about community. It is about relationships with people you would have no business being friends with otherwise. It is about breaking down cultural, racial, political, ideological, and socioeconomic walls that we put in place in society.
The soccer friends I have made, either locally or digitally (Shout out to my Soccer ’N’ Sweet Tea Slackers), since moving to Greenville in 2009 have been the first group of folks I consider “my” friends, as opposed to friends I have made through my wife or work-related friends. They are also, as a collective, the most diverse group of people I have ever been around. It is definitely a collection of misfit toys in a lot of ways (myself chief among them).
So when I heard that there would be a team close enough to go watch in person on a semi-regular basis, I knew this was my team. I am a loyal fan. Once I adopt a team as my own with conviction, I do not waver. So although my home state is getting an MLS team in Nashville, Atlanta is my team now, through whatever comes.
The Excitement Builds
While I first heard about Atlanta United in 2014 when the news broke about the city being granted a franchise, it was in 2016 when I truly became entrenched in the buildup to the team’s launch. By this time, the team had a name and a crest, there were supporters groups forming, and media coverage beginning in the form of websites and podcasts.
As a relative newby to the intricacies of Major League Soccer rules (TAM, GAM, DPs, Salary Caps, etc.), I was quickly drawn to a guy named Jason Longshore who was running a podcast called The Peachtree Post and found his knowledge of the league incredibly beneficial as my fandom grew.
Then there was Dirty South Soccer and Mouths of the South who provided another layer to my fandom as I began to fall in love with this team. They were a great resource in following the team’s growth as a fan who lived outside of Atlanta.
At this point in my fandom (Summer of 2016) I was excited and growing passionate, but what happened next would change everything.
Aside from the building excitement of Atlanta United getting geared up for their inaugural season, 2016 was a big year in my life. I was in my last year of graduate school, I was beginning to think about my next steps in 2017, and my wife and I were trying to start a family.
While I won’t go into great detail here, I need to briefly share what happened to my family in the fall of 2016 and over the following two years because it is such a crucial part of the story of what Atlanta United has meant to me.
After several months trying to get pregnant, my wife and I found out we were having a baby in September. Two weeks later, my wife had an ectopic pregnancy, we lost our baby, and I nearly lost my wife in the process.
In the two years since, we have been on quite a journey. I hope to share more detail soon through a podcast series I am working on. But let’s pause this part of the story here for the time being.
Atlanta United’s first season was special for me. I was able to watch this team for the first time in my own state as I took my wife, my best friend, and his girlfriend down to Charleston to check out the Carolina Challenge Cup. It’s kind of crazy looking back now because so many of the players I love now, I really did not know much about at that point.
Funny story, we were eating breakfast the morning after the matches at a little donut shop downtown and three Atlanta players (one was definitely LGP but I did not know who the other two were at the time) walked right past the storefront. CCC was such a fun environment. I enjoyed getting to watch the team up close, meet them after the game, shake hands, and get autographs.
As the season began, I started writing for a fan blog covering the team. I did that for probably the first month or two before life got in the way. But my love of covering soccer from a “fan media” side would not go away anytime soon.
As the season got going, someone coined the term Gresselmania. After seeing Jason Longshore mention it, and Dirty South Soccer say they wanted it on a t-shirt, I put my rudimentary graphic design skills to work and created the ORIGINAL Gresselmania shirt. The campaign ran for three days and a handful of folks bought the shirt. I thought it was a fun, very small, fan thing to be a part of.
Then it blew up.
The man himself, Julian Gressel, said in an interview that he had not heard about the shirts in time to get one and he was bummed about it. Thankfully, relaunching the campaign indefinitely was a simple enough process. Then, one day, I saw Greg Garza’s tweet of both he and Julian wearing those shirts. Is this real life?
I was able to attend two other matches in that first year. One planned with my wife and friends, and a second to which I won tickets. I was able to take my nephew who drove down from Chattanooga to experience the Five Stripes in the Benz. I was even able to secure the vanity license plate “ATLUTD” for South Carolina to emblazon my vehicle on a semi-permanent basis.
The Road to a Championship
Atlanta’s second season was even more consuming for me. Not because my love for team had grown any more (I was already at my max), but because I was becoming more entrenched in growing the game locally in the upstate. We had a new NPSL team (Greenville FC) and would soon have a USL League One team announced (Greenville Triumph).
I had begun a podcast (Yeah, THAT Soccer Show) and began covering the teams over at Soccer ’N’ Sweet Tea. I was also on the leadership of the Mill Town Operatives Supporters Group and our SNST team decided to open our Slack to the public. All of these things, in combination with it being a World Cup year, made 2018 the most soccer-filled year of my life.
Now, back to the story we put on pause before. At the beginning of 2018 my wife and I were considering giving up on our dream of having kids of our own and pursuing adoption. We were both excited about the prospect. But something told us to visit a doctor in town and just hear what he had to say.
There had been a ton of heartbreak and disappointment over the two year span from 2016–2017 but after five minutes sitting in a meeting with this man, we felt such peace about moving forward with one last shot at having kids of our own.
In the hardest season of my life, soccer was there for me. Specifically, Atlanta United was there for me. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. Being immersed in this team’s first two seasons was a bit of an oasis for me. It allowed me to feel emotions about something when I had begun to become numb in my real life.
Regardless of how this team performed, they brought me such joy to feel like I was a part of the organization. I was a fan. I was a 17. I AM a 17.
Through all of the pain and grief over the course of two years, Atlanta United felt like a close friend. Then, towards the end of the summer this year, my wife and I found out we were expecting a baby girl.
As the season wound its way into the playoffs, and I grew in excitement and anxiety over becoming a dad, I told my wife that if Atlanta made it to the MLS Cup final, I was going to do whatever it took to get there. I needed to celebrate with the team that has pulled me through these past few years.
I could not believe it when I was actually able to get tickets. My wife offered to come with me, but soccer is not really her thing. She was gracious enough to allow me to get away for the day. So I was happy to go “alone” and just meet up with my 73K friends.
It was a day I will never forget. Pregame was cold and wet and miserable. There was a point in time where I seriously considered posting up in one of the port-a-potties for an hour or so before the gates opened. But when I finally made it inside, none of the weather issue mattered one bit.
When the game was over and we had won, I did not want to leave. I had a 2+ hour drive back in the snow but I was not in a rush to get on the road. I knew that this was a special moment. It was a first, hopefully of many, for this team. But it meant a little more to me.
This win meant that my daughter, who will no doubt be an Atlanta United fan from birth, will come into the world with the Five Stripes as champions. She will never know anything different.
What Comes Next?
2018 was a huge year for me both in my soccer fandom and my family life. 2019 will be even bigger. Atlanta United will have a new coach, be playing in CCL, and defending their title. Greenville Triumph will be playing their inaugural season in a brand new league. Greenville FC will be looking to improve in year two. And I will be welcoming my daughter in March.
But for now, I want to get back to the inspiration of this article, what was my favorite memory of this post-season run for the Five Stripes? It was standing in front of my seat as the team celebrated and feeling like I was a part of this championship.
I know that is a silly things that we fans do. We stake claim in the success of the teams we cheer on. But with Atlanta United it has always felt more earned. There was no greater evidence of that than when Mr. Gresselmania himself, a man who I created a shirt for, carried the cup over to the supporters and held it high as a tribute to the fans.
This team, I believe, considers this championship as much the fans’ trophy as it is theirs. But we could not relish that fact without everyone from top to bottom in the organization. So in the same way that Julian thanked us, I want to offer some thanks of my own.
Thank you Uncle Arthur. Without your belief in soccer and in Atlanta, this would not be possible. Thank you to Darren and Carlos and everyone on the administrative side of this team. You have led the way for this success. Thank you to Tata and the coaching staff. Thank you to each and every player over the past two seasons who has given yourselves to this dream. Thanks to every person behind the scenes from trainers, to social media folks, to the operations personnel at the Benz.
Thank you to the many in the fan community that create content and community. Thanks to Jason Longshore. Thanks to Soccer Down Here and Mouths of the South and Unrelegated. Thanks to Dirty South Soccer. Thanks to Jay Riddle (#NGSU). Thanks to Terminus Legion, The Faction, Footie Mob, and Resurgence. Thanks to the many other SGs that work hard to create an atmosphere that is unmatched in MLS.
Thanks to our new SG: Five Stripes SC who has begun to regularly get together to watch matches in the upstate.
And most of all, thanks to my wife for humoring my obsession and allowing me to be a part of this whole thing as a fan. She is the true hero in this story.
Atlanta United has quite literally been a life changer for me. A life saver in the darkest time in my life. And I could not be more excited that my daughter will come into the world with the Five Stripes as champions!