His new team is the toast of MLS, but Arthur Blank’s first experience with soccer was not particularly fruitful.
Atlanta United’s owner was first introduced to the sport while living in California in the 1970s, as an activity for his oldest son Kenny, a grade-schooler at the time. Kenny wasn’t taken with the beautiful game, though, electing to lie down on the field and take a rest during the action.
“I still remember his mom and I trying to encourage him to play,” Blank recalls with a chuckle in a recent conversation with MLSsoccer.com. “We just couldn’t get him going.”
Kenny found his passions elsewhere, as an Emmy-winning journalist and patron of the arts. His younger siblings gave soccer a shot, however, and his half-brother Josh fell deeply in love from an early age, rising through the sprawling Atlanta youth scene with leading club Concorde Fire and eventually competing in the country’s top league, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Last year Josh moved on to the squad at NCAA Division I program Elon University, and will begin his second season with the Phoenix in the fall.
Along the way, he led his father on a journey of discovery that greatly influenced the birth of Atlanta United – and continues today. In fact, it’s quite possible that without Josh’s influence, this year’s biggest expansion story might never have even happened.
The co-founder of The Home Depot and owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons along with a suite of other sports properties, Blank says he and MLS Commissioner Don Garber first discussed the idea of a team for Atlanta more than a decade ago.
The economics didn’t quite line up at that juncture. But the seed of an idea was planted, and it would germinate as Blank roamed the sidelines of Josh’s youth games over the years.
“Joshua, he was always very athletic,” remembers his father. “He loved football, was a huge baseball fan, played a little bit of basketball, but he seemed to have an affinity for soccer.
“He used to go out and practice til whatever time, and then he’d come back in the house, take the cars out of the garage and just hit soccer balls against the wall for an hour, an hour and a half, until he was dripping wet, sopping wet. But that was the way he practiced. I knew then that he was committed to the sport.”
Josh noticed that as his own soccer sophistication grew, his father followed.
“From coming to a lot of my games, he started picking up on how the game was played and would ask me questions,” Josh told MLSsoccer.com this week. “And he always loves watching the US national team play too, so we always watch those games together and I would kind of be his teacher in terms of how everything works.”
The elder Blank picked up a soccer photography habit, snapping action shots of Josh and his teammates in action. It gave him a glimpse of the dramatic demographic changes taking place across greater Atlanta and the nation as a whole, with soccer playing a unifying role among the dizzyingly diverse communities. And when the chance to invest in the sport returned, he was ready.
“Basically we were told by existing [MLS] owners that this is a long-haul building franchise, and you have to get into the sport because you love it, and you have to have patience to build a franchise,” says Blank.
“We certainly love the sport and not only the playing of it – the part I was very attracted to was, how the game in Atlanta, with over 35,000 young folks playing club soccer … was key to the diversity of Atlanta – the diversity of America, for that matter. How it was all changing. And to see these young folks who had come, in many cases, from all over the world, bringing their sport here, was really wonderful for me.”
And from that came a serious interest in creating a top-flight professional team in the city.
"[My dad] just said that I know soccer is something you’re really interested in, and the South and Atlanta specifically is a city that deserves soccer, but I don’t know if right now is the time," Josh explained. "He always thought that at some point, getting a team to Atlanta would be the right decision, because Atlanta and Georgia in general is one of the biggest youth soccer markets in the United States. So there was definitely that culture here, but it was a matter of when was the right time to have it."
Soccer took on an even more personal place in Blank’s world five years ago, when it brought love into his life.
Angela Macuga, the mother of Josh’s Concorde teammate Drew, caught Arthur’s eye as one of the team’s most dedicated and spirited supporters. Her daughter Emily (pictured below) was also a high-level youth player who will begin her second season at Wofford College later this year.
“She’s a very competitive woman, doesn’t like to lose at anything and she was a great soccer mom,” says Blank of Macuga. “She wouldn’t miss a practice or a game for either her son or her daughter. So I got to know her through that and we went to some American football games as a family, and we enjoyed that and after that we started to date.”
The two got married last year, and today they are an inseparable pair at every ATL UTD home game, and most of the away games, too.
“She wouldn’t miss one. She’s just like I am. She loves it. She knows a lot about the sport, though she didn’t play it,” says Blank. “If you look in the dictionary under ‘soccer mom,’ you’ll see a picture of my wife Angie. We go to all the home games, some of the away games depending on where they are and what’s going on with the other children. But it’s an incredible family sport.
“When I go to our home games now, to see 45-50,000 people – including kids – standing up, rooting as hard as they can, away from their electronics and focused on the field and the celebration. It’s just wonderful. It’s a great sense of community – it’s a great sense of family, it really is.”
That sense extends to the Atlanta United front office. Drew works in the club’s marketing department, while Josh is gaining experience under technical director Carlos Bocanegra, head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino and the rest of the technical and academy staff as an operations assistant, with an eye towards gaining his college degree in sports management and business.
“The guys on the team are great to be around, and everyone that works for Atlanta United has a ton of passion,” says Josh. “When you work for a team, you have such a strong connection to the team. You feel even more pride when you see 45,000 people at the games or see the team doing well.”
Arthur clearly feels the same way. He readily reels off ATL UTD’s dazzling attendance and merchandising statistics, both of which are at or near the top of the MLS charts, and sounds a note of cautious optimism about the team’s mid-table position in the Eastern Conference standings.
“I think that we touched all the right nerves here,” he says. “It’s meeting fans of soccer where they are. It’s been incredible.
“And for me personally as a father, to see Joshua and Drew so heavily involved in the sport and involved in the team, to see them putting in the time and the hours and the effort they are, to see the smiles on their faces, it’s wonderful. It’s great.”
His father emphasizes that he’s always sought to give his six children and three stepchildren space to decide on their own life and career paths. Yet he sees a focus and commitment to Josh’s work in soccer that hints at a bright future in the game.
“There’s nothing more important than hands-on experience, particularly if it’s close to the right people,” says Blank. “Given the quality of the organization that we’ve built, the opportunity to be trained and mentored and spend time with folks that he is – not his father, necessarily, but these folks that really know the game! – is something that you can’t replace. So I hope that he has an interest long-term; I think he does.”
And in the meantime, father continues to lean on son for understanding of the sport’s finer points.
“He’s very knowledgeable,” says Arthur of Josh. “I enjoy watching a match with him and getting his analysis about our matches. I don’t bug him a lot, because I know he’s making notes and doing his evaluations, etc. But post-match, he gives me a good explanation of what happened and what didn’t happen. So it’s neat for me as a father to be learning from my son.”
That feeling is mutual.
“It’s something that, from when the club was announced, that we’ve kind of shared together and it was a bond that we had when I was a kid,” he says. “That was the sport I loved to play and he grew up watching me play, and that was the team that we both had a passion for … and I love answering his questions, because I’m furthering his knowledge and sharing my own.
“I remember I was actually sitting next to him when Yamil [Asad] scored the [club’s inaugural MLS goal] goal against the Red Bulls, and that was one of the coolest moments of my life that’s happened so far, for sure. I love sharing those moments with him.”