ATLANTA—This city and its soccer scene keeps exploding perceptions – MLS conventional wisdoms, its own viability as a market for the pro game, even MLS’s vision of itself – and now it’s done so with the All-Star experience as well.
Atlanta United have turned heads with their huge crowds, big ambitions, splashy spending and a high-octane style of play, and they got the attention of everyone in town this week, too. Starting with Saturday’s Beltline Block Party – the first of many festive occasions around town – and culminating with Wednesday’s match vs. Juventus, the ATL welcomed Italy’s reigning champions and the rest of the league with the same flair, soul and swagger that put its music, food and culture on the world map long ago.
Did someone say Flair?
“Personally, it was a great opportunity for me, honestly, to get myself in front of a lot of fans and to play a good brand of football with a lot of great guys. It’s not every day that I, or a lot of these guys, get to play against Juventus.”
Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen is one of the few visiting players to have quieted the home faithful at the awe-inspiring Mercedes-Benz Stadium, via his penalty-kick shootout heroics in last year’s MLS Cup Playoffs, and he said he experienced “less stress” in this week’s visit, even if he couldn’t stymie Juventus like he did Atlanta United last fall.
“I mean, the atmosphere here every night is amazing,” Steffen said. “The fans here in Atlanta, they’re not only just loud, they actually understand soccer too, and it’s awesome to see, and it’s a lot of fun to play in front of, every time.”
The final score is hardly the most important thing about All-Star games, but it’s important to give the fans – a whopping 72,317 packed in on Wednesday – a show. And it sure is nice to put European royalty through their paces, which is exactly what the All-Stars did, putting coach Tata Martino’s aggressive high-press tactics to use despite having only two training sessions together.
“We tried to put pressure on them high, and we did it really well even if we couldn’t have enough time to train, to get trainings on the pressure,” said Portland Timbers maestro Diego Valeri. “But it was a good performance and the intensity was really high.
“It was a good experience to learn some ways to prepare something quickly, to prepare something from almost nothing, and it was very good. You could see today how we pressed and it worked, because we created a lot of turnovers and created chances from there.”
Martino’s work in Atlanta has more than lived up to the hefty reputation he carried with him from FC Barcelona and the Argentine and Paraguayan national teams, and he impressed again this week, making the most of his limited time with his star-studded squad. All-Star practices tend to be relaxed runthroughs, but Tata did his best to make this year’s team a celebrity-ridden facsimile of his Five Stripes.
“We know we have a responsibility to try and play in this game and not just try and contain and defend Juventus,” he said postgame. “This was a team of MLS All-Stars, the best players in the league chosen by the fans and by the coach, so we felt like we had a responsibility to really try and propose our own style in the game.”
This year’s illustrious visitors have lit up some of the world’s biggest stages and filled their trophy case over the decades, but they made clear that what they saw in the ATL was unique.
“I was very pleasantly surprised for the entire climate and the entire impression that we got from Atlanta,” said Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri. “It’s not easy to put 70,000 people in a stadium like today, you know. We also had the opportunity to see all the presidents of the US teams last night, there was a dinner with the MLS and it was really an honor and a pleasure for us to be part of it. There was so much enthusiasm, they were able to create such a good momentum in the United States and I think this speaks well for the future.”
At its core, though, All-Star is all about fun, and The Big Peach certainly knows how to do that. From the parties and meetups to the community service to the game itself, this year’s spectacle set a new standard for what this event can be.
“I thought it was awesome, a really good showing by Atlanta and everyone that put on this event the last few days,” said Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst. “The city really supported every MLS All-Star, they were cheering for us, you could hear guys’ names being yelled and I think that was awesome. There weren’t too many people out there rooting for Juventus. But we expect nothing less – our fans are the best in the league and they came out here in force today.
“It’s an awesome event that keeps getting bigger. It’s so much bigger than it was my first All-Star 14 years ago.”