Even with 40,000 fans expected for Saturday’s match against CF Montréal (7 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), there will be an empty seat at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Kouns family -- Chris, his wife Tammy and 12-year-old son Caden -- have been Atlanta United season-ticket holders from the beginning. It makes sense for a family created by soccer. Chris kept playing until he couldn’t, then took the coaching path. It started with a high school stint before beginning a collegiate career that spanned over 20 years at multiple stops across all levels of women’s soccer. Six months or so into one of those stops, at Jacksonville University, Chris met Tammy. Two and a half years later they were married. Two months after that, Tammy was pregnant with Caden.

The difficult life of a coaching family with regular moves and nights on the road began. After years away from Atlanta, Chris got an opportunity to take a role close to home and more importantly, his family. His mom and dad lived nearby and the role seemed to fit, so in 2015 the Kouns’ headed back toward Atlanta. In 2017, all three were there for the first Atlanta United game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Then as many as they could get to from there on forward.

Kouns family

In 2020, like everyone else, they didn’t attend many games -- even when the stadium opened up for a few thousand people. In the midst of a pandemic, the Kouns’ were meticulous about taking the safest path possible. Tammy’s medical history made her a high-risk individual.

However, in December they decided to take a chance. They hadn’t seen Caden’s grandparents in weeks. The first gap between seeing them lasted months, but this one just lasted weeks. The family wanted to spend Christmas together. But before Christmas, Chris’ dad, Phillip, developed a cough. Phillip went to the doctor. The COVID-19 test came back negative. The doctor told him not to worry much. Just an annual bout with bronchitis. Phillip took another COVID-19 test just to be sure. It came back negative. So Christmas morning the Kouns’, just the five of them, got together.

Within a week, Chris, Tammy, Phillip and Chris’ mother had all been diagnosed with COVID-19. Phillip’s birthday came on the 26th. On the 27th, Tammy went to the hospital for the first time. On New Year's day, Phillip went into the hospital. The first few days he could communicate by text. Soon the texts had stopped. Visitors weren’t allowed. On Jan. 10, Chris and his family said goodbye to Phillip over the phone. The nurse on the other end promised to hold his hand. The call ended. Five minutes later another call came to say that Phillip had gone.

The next day, with Tammy now out of the hospital, she told Chris to go with his Mom to the house she and Phillip had shared in south Atlanta to take care of whatever it is you need to take care of when someone dies. Instead, Chris wanted to take Tammy to the hospital again. Her condition had worsened. But Tammy told Chris to be with his family. If anything serious happened she would call 911. Chris reluctantly headed out. A short time after making it to his parents’ place, his neighbor called.

“Chris, an ambulance is here. They’re at the wrong house. I think it’s Tammy.”

Tammy’s oxygen levels had dropped. She couldn’t breathe. The 911 operators couldn’t understand her. So the ambulance ended up at the house next door. Chris’ neighbor knew where they kept a spare key and let the EMTs in. From there, Tammy would go to the hospital where she’d spend the next 20 days on a ventilator.

On Feb. 10, Chris and Caden put on hazmat suits. Someone in the hospital set a timer for 10 minutes. And Chris and Caden were let into Tammy’s room to say goodbye.

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In the span of a month, Chris had lost his wife and father. In the span of a month, Caden had lost his mom and grandfather. And it left them facing the question everyone does when someone you love dies: Now what?

Well, first you have to face a steady stream of unwelcome firsts.

“That's the hardest part, now we're at all the firsts,” Chris said. “There’s the first Easter. Her birthday comes up three weeks before his birthday. With those things, it’s probably harder for me knowing that it's his first.”

The birthdays and holidays will come whether you want them to or not. But the Kouns’ know that some firsts will come by choice. And with vaccinations widely available and the 2021 MLS season underway, they know one of those choices will be to return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium -- even if there’s an empty seat next to them.

“That one's going to be hard. That was the site of the one thing that all three of us loved, you know? And I think that as much as I love it, there will be a hole. There's going to be something that's not quite right for a while,” Chris said. “I'm sure it will get right. You know, I'm sure it will.”

When Chris and Caden head back to a full-capacity Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they’ll not only be returning to the site of so many memories, they’ll also be returning to a gathering place for a community that has rallied around them. A GoFundMe to cover the Kouns’ medical expenses started and rapidly spread between Atlanta United fans on social media. So far, the page has raised over $20,000. It’s not enough to cover the entirety of the $61,000 bill for Tammy’s hospital stay, but it helps.

“As a whole, the Atlanta United community and in the fan community has just been super supportive. And the overall support of people we did not know was really kind of surprising. People who just randomly sent LinkedIn messages that said. ‘Hey, you don't know me, but your story touched me. And I just wanted you to know somebody is thinking about you,’” Chris said.

“I thought that that was very comforting because it made me feel like there was hope in the world. You know, the worst part was that when all this was going on, you feel hopeless. You feel like you went from one tragedy to the next tragedy, never even having time to grieve for the first tragedy, because I was already in firefighting mode for the second one. At the same time, I'm getting messages from all these people and all these different places who all are from Atlanta United's world. And that was really, really special.”

The Kouns’ know that their extra seat can’t physically stay empty forever. So now Tammy’s seat offers a chance to pay the kindness of a community forward, and a chance to celebrate the game that brought their family together.

“I mean, we have three season tickets. Every game that we go to was always all three of us. And so this year is just going to be two and an empty seat, and that's hard,” Chris said. “But we've already started talking about, you know, in mom's place, maybe we'd like to invite this person or this person. Or maybe just every game, if we're not going to bring a friend, we're going to give the ticket to somebody on the fan line who wants a ticket. We’re just really going to try to make it so that it’s a positive again, because it's too easy to make it a negative.

“Soccer has always been an opportunity for people to come together, you know? Yes, we have rowdy fans and yes, we don't like people like Orlando or wherever else. But realistically the beautiful game has always been there for people. And it's about people and it's about passions. And I think that anything that you're passionate about and anything that has a group of people who find a collective in it, that's healing. I'm looking forward to the first time where I can see the people who were so supportive on Twitter and who were so supportive in the Facebook groups and just say, ‘thank you' in person. Because that, that healing factor of the game, it's bigger than the ball rolling into the net.”

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