Atlanta United supporters at Sydney Harbor
Courtesy of Nick Puñal

Castillo: Atlanta United's expansion magic spawns Australian supporters

For 99.9 percent of Atlanta United’s newly minted fans, the squad’s long-awaited inaugural season starts on Sunday at 7:30 pm (FS1 and FOX Deportes), when they take on the New York Red Bulls at home. For a hardy handful, though, the action kicks off at 11:30 am Monday morning. They’ll be watching from the future – okay, not exactly.

Score another point for Atlanta’s major moves making a big MLS splash – the team’s magic has spawned an organized supporters’ group in Sydney, Australia. Chalk it up to a combination of factors: A combination of celebrity fans, international attention on their NFL cousins, the Falcons, and the attraction of joining a club from the ground up all added up to a potent brew that’s partially birthed Atlanta United Sydney – a club currently 16 hours ahead in time of the team it supports.

The still-fledgling fan group isn’t the first MLS supporters’ group in Asia or the Pacific overall. Among others, a far-flung affiliation of Portland Timbers fans gathers to eat Providence Park-themed snacks while watching matches in Tokyo. But it’s likely the first official group in Australia, acclaims founder Nick Puñal – and it’s certainly the first there for a team that, until this past February, had yet to kick a ball in a real-deal match.

“I think it's just the way they built the whole thing up from the ground up; setting up the academy, looking at Homegrown players,” Puñal says. “The exciting signings that they've made this offseason really captured my imagination, too, to be honest.”

Why Atlanta United?

It’s still a fair question, though: What’s the deal? It starts with an overall soccer madness for Puñal, a 44-year-old who works on organizational change management for the Australian government. An Australian of English and Spanish extraction, as a child he picked up loves for two teams from those countries: AFC Bournemouth from the former, and RCD Espanyol for the latter.  

Now here comes the early Atlanta connection. After Puñal worked in Barcelona around 1992. he grew to love a city’s atmosphere before, during, and after the Olympics. So when a few job opportunities turned up right after Atlanta hosted the Games in 1996, he headed over. Naturally, back then, MLS had existed for just a handful of months, and any thought of an Atlanta team remained decades away.

But he still developed a love for the city, one he kept even as he moved to Sydney for work some years later. There, he established supporters’ clubs in the city for both Bournemouth and Espanyol, rounding out what little free time remained with gigs as a singer-songwriter. Any news of MLS proved an occasional curiosity – until, one day, while clicking around the web, he happened across a striking image.

That turned out to be the Atlanta United primary kit, right after its release. The black and red stripes reminded him instantly of his English club love, Bournemouth.  From there, a seed grew.

“I thought, ‘You know what, I'm not going to sort of be a typical bandwagon person that jumps on after success,” he says. “I thought, ‘I'm not going to wait for this great start to be to be walking the same journey as the fans over in Atlanta. Let’s just walk together and build.’”

But Puñal also refused to outright recruit members from his other two existing supporters’ groups, preferring to keep each organization with a distinct identity. So the trouble remained of cobbling together enough Australians who would also choose to support a still-not-quite-existent MLS team some 9,280 miles away.

In the end, he assembled a ragtag band of MLS-sympathetic characters through the internet, and by hanging around Cheers, the Sydney sports bar where his other supporters’ groups meet. Among them, he found a couple of fans of other MLS squads who agreed to come to early meetings.

“One guy said to me, ‘Do you mind if I turn up in my Red Bulls jersey?’” Puñal recalls. He also recruited other fans of Atlanta sports teams, in general, from a Super Bowl watch party. Occasionally, Americans passing through Australia have rounded out the handful of meet-ups so far.

Photo courtesy of Nick Puñal

And on Feb. 11 (ET), they finally celebrated a rite of passage for soccer fans far away from their favorite teams – getting together at a bar, at an odd time, to watch a match on TV. When Atlanta United played Chattanooga FC, Puñal and his gang dutifully got together at Cheers on Sunday, their time.

Among just a handful of likeminded folks, the Sydney group found a spark with one of the most exciting aspects of supporting an MLS expansion team. “We have the A-league here in Australia, and even though I do like Sydney FC, there hasn't been that same level of excitement,” Puñal says. “It was almost like they were expecting, ‘Oh here we are. Come and watch us at games and stuff,’ and that's it. Whereas I think with Atlanta United, they really take on board people’s ideas.”

Puñal, meanwhile, is doing the same with his supporters’ club. For now, he says, they’ll only meet up in person for Atlanta’s Saturday-night matches, as they won’t fall during a Sydney work day. And as the season goes on, he hopes word will spread to thicken their ranks. “I’m operating, like, on a faith basis,” he says, “like yeah, do it, and they will come.”