ATLANTA — "We have a different kind of religion."
It's 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and a man in a pope's hat and striped necktie is explaining his attire ("It's a marriage of church and state") while proffering Jell-O shots in a railroad-adjacent parking lot called The Gulch. His name is Chris Lopez, he bought season tickets three-and-a-half years ago for Atlanta United—an MLS team that just finished its first season—and he's also holding a scepter capped by a soccer ball in the middle of a cross.
"I wanted something to lead my flock with," he says, gesturing to the people munching on various grilled items and sipping adult beverages around him in the shadow of the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. "I'll take them to the promised land: the win."
Unfortunately, neither Lopez nor his cohort of merry volunteer cheerleaders were able to deliver a win in Thursday's elimination game against Columbus Crew SC. Atlanta—or #ATLUTD for the social media savvy—lost on penalty kicks after regulation and overtime play wound up scoreless. It was an uncharacteristically quiet game for the team, who had the second-most goals in MLS during the regular season—the fans, though, continued to be some of the loudest not just in MLS, but also in U.S. sports.
A city with a reputation for sports apathy has, seemingly inexplicably, become proof that mainstream professional soccer in the U.S might not be such a far-fetched idea after all.
"It's more amped-up than at Atlanta Falcons games, and sometimes there are even more people," says Corey, 30, who's been working security since the opening of the Benz. Atlanta United fans have long been making headlines: The expansion team was announced in April 2014, and by December 2015, the team had sold 29,000 season tickets. This was a year-and-a-half before the team's first kickoff.
In its debut season, the team has broken records for single-game MLS attendance (twice), single-season attendance and, on Thursday, postseason MLS attendance. A total of 67,221 people attended the game—or just about 3,000 fewer than watched the Falcons lose to the Miami Dolphins in the same stadium at the NFL team's last home game.
Those impressive numbers might seem extra unlikely given that the Southeast just got a team in 2015 (Orlando) after losing two teams from Florida in 2001. "As a kid, there was no soccer around me—no rec leagues, no anything," explains native Atlantan Curtis Jenkins, 38, co-founder of the supporter group Footie Mob. By day, he's a fire marshal. "I remember in '96 when they were launching MLS. It was like, 'OK, Atlanta's gotta be on the list, right? We just had the Olympics!'"
Instead, it earned the questionable distinction of becoming one of the largest U.S. cities without an MLS team. Jenkins looked across the pond, becoming a Premier League fan after a colleague inspired him to watch the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Then the team was announced, and he had an idea: Footie Mob, a play on the name of classic Atlanta rap group Goodie Mob. He mentioned it to a friend as a joke but started scooping up all the necessary handles and licenses of a 21st-century organization. The club is now one of the four primary Atlanta United supporters groups and boasts around 770 members. "That surprised the f--k out of me—anybody who tells you they aren't surprised by the fans is lying," Jenkins says. "By the fourth tailgate, we realized: This isn't going anywhere. And it just kind of blew up from there."
The group's name is more than just a play on words; it's an example of how Jenkins wants to connect the city's long hip-hop history with its newest team. Their chants are riffs on OutKast, Ghost Town DJs and Childish Gambino; their custom scarves—"We Ready," "Never Scared"—the names of local anthems.
"I love music and music is such a big part of Atlanta," Jenkins adds. "I just want to keep sneaking Atlanta culture in." He sees hip-hop embracing the team just as he's pushing its fans to embrace the music. "It's always happened whenever an Atlanta team gets good—in the first OutKast video (released shortly after the Braves won two NL pennants in a row), Andre 's wearing a Braves jersey."
"Man, it's dope to add another professional sports team—and they're good too!" says OutKast's Big Boi. "It ain't like you got the B-team. You got a real contender." He hasn't attended a game yet thanks to a busy fall of promoting his newest album Boomiverse but has recorded a few in-game promos ("Stand up!" "Make some noise!") for his local team. "Somebody sent me a video of them playing 'The Way You Move' during the soccer game—you know that s--t will rock anything."
Music is one way that the team embeds Atlanta culture into its game-day experience—Archie Eversole joined Thursday to hammer the Golden Spike during a rendition of "We Ready" (also the basis of one of the team's most popular chants), which the crowd later reprised with cellphone flashlights in the air. The team was introduced to Shawty Lo's "Dey Know." But it goes beyond hip-hop (a practically endless fount of hometown pride for ATLiens).
Everything from Coca-Cola to Atlanta gets soccer-ified at the match, filling the stands with almost as many local cultural artifacts as people standing and screaming (and they did stand and scream—for all 90 minutes, and overtime, and the penalty kicks). The crowd loves to chant its name—"WE...ARE...UNITED"—which seems like an implied reaction to the increasingly diverse metropolis.
"The city is growing, expanding—you add the soccer team, that's a whole other element," says Big Boi. "Just more life and excitement to Atlanta. Big-time cultural diversity."
That diversity even shows up within the supporters groups, though you won't see Los 12 de Atlanta listed on the team's site. The name is emblazoned on the giant bass drums that they bring into the Benz, though, and they're as easy to find as any of the other tailgating groups in The Gulch, blasting Latin Trap and grilling. They're front and center in the supporters section, too.
"It's not quite the same," says Gabriel, 29, one of the drummers who hails from Mendoza, Argentina, alluding to the fact that no matter how groundbreaking Atlanta fans are stateside, they're far from the raucous crowds in his home country.
He and many of the other members of Los 12 were inspired to come to games by the presence of fellow Argentine Tata Martino, who manages Atlanta United. As the supporters groups begin their (highly structured) march to the stadium, they pick up Los 12 along the way, chanting, "Vamos, vamos, A-T-L!"
On a more stick-to-sports level, United fans just want a championship for the city—any championship—especially after the Falcons' Super Bowl...well, you know what happened.
"I'm a superstitious Atlanta fan who's waiting for the one thing that's going to go wrong. I told my girlfriend at the time, 'Don't cheer yet, it's only halftime'...and afterwards, I said: 'You're not from Atlanta. I knew this was going to happen.' This [United] season's gotten me through that," says Jenkins. "Like, 'I've got something else'—it's been like that for a lot of people."
"Indeed, it's been a minute," Big Boi adds, sighing.
Even though Atlanta United won't be taking the chip this year, the team's runaway success both on the field and off has tapped into an aspect of its city's culture that appears to have been lying dormant. MARTA cars have Atlanta United wraps. Bud Light Atlanta United billboards dot roadsides. The convenience store clerk wearing a Chelsea kit will tell you that, yes, he's going to the game because he loves all soccer and he's excited to have a team. The players feel the energy, and that made their feelings about being done until next season that much more heartfelt.
"It's just amazing to play in front of this crowd on a weekly basis. It's just indescribable," defender Michael Parkhurst told media after the game. "We couldn't ask for more from the city of Atlanta than what we've gotten this year."
An eight-year veteran of MLS, Parkhurst concluded: "Hopefully they come back next year."