Atlanta United crowd in the stands
Photo by Phil West

Early into first season, Atlanta's supporters work to build unique culture

It’s the moment of which every capo dreams: a chant you’re leading not only ignites the supporters in your section, but spreads throughout the stadium to rally and unite all the fans as one. And the Saturday before last, 20-year-old Nermin Sakonjic experienced it for the first time, courtesy of nearly 46,000 Atlanta United fans thronging Bobby Dodd Stadium.

It was towards the end of the first half in that afternoon's 4-0 Atlanta home victory over the Chicago Fire, when Sakonjic pivoted into their version of the “Viking Clap.” (It’s been an MLS mainstay for a decade, but caught worldwide soccer fans’ attention during last summer’s Euros.)

In Atlanta, the claps are punctuated not by Icelandic-style grunts or Sounders-style “heys,” but by an “A,” then a “T,” then an “L.” And as Sakonjic ran through it the first time, he felt electrified. He exulted to the fans in front of him, “They’re learning! We’ve got the whole stadium going!”

Photo by Phil West

This is all part of the fan education building in Atlanta as the expansion side continues to pick up steam across the city. There’s certainly excitement about the team that shows up in shirts, bumper stickers, and flags around town. But some of the fans finding their way to Bobby Dodd Stadium for inaugural season games, which are so far infusing a bit of college football camaraderie into the general congeniality of an MLS crowd, aren’t specifically versed in soccer-style support.

Atlanta’s supporters’ groups, then, are finding a unique opportunity to both bring general sports fans into the fold, and carve out the city’s unique spin on soccer support. They’re all collaborating, and even growing in numbers themselves: a new, Latin-centered group, Delta 17, is currently working to grow enough to join the official ranks.

The first order of business so far: creating a tailgating culture at Bobby Dodd, even if it is only a temporary home. The parking lot on Spring Street east of the stadium comes alive several hours before game time. Footie Mob, a supporters’ group that also celebrates Atlanta music, has a DJ at its tailgate spinning mostly hip-hop, though he nods to their Athens neighbors by throwing in R.E.M’s “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.”

Meanwhile, over at the Faction’s tailgate, leader Mark Knipfer is Atlanti-fying burgers by adding pimento cheese to them in mid-grill, while some of the younger members of the family-friendly supporters’ group play soccer tennis. At the first tailgate, they’d even laid out turf over the parking lot — though that’s unfortunately been stolen between the first and second home match, and they’re working on replacing it.

The tailgate’s already lively enough that it’s not just attracting Atlanta United fans. This past Saturday found, among the revelers, a trio of Columbus Crew fans hailing from central Ohio but transplanted to the city. Jeff Cowles, Kelsey Pressler, and Jillian Yuricic sported plenty of black and yellow. “We hate the Fire, so we’re here,” Pressler said brightly.

Photo by Phil West

Beyond the tailgate, supporters have already begun a march to the match, involving about 200 fans who gather in an alleyway at the end of the lot. The group then proceeds through a tunnel that goes under the nearby interstate, and spills out on the Georgia Tech campus a few blocks from the stadium.  

Photo by Phil West

Though the multiple supporters’ groups have created their own chants, in an effort to unify for Atlanta fans at large, they’re also sharing in capo duties. It’s not too surprising that they’re finding the simplest chants are catching on early. A repeated “ATL! ATL!” is already emerging as a good fallback chant to rev up supporters. Meanwhile, on corner kicks, the simplicity and frivolity of LMFAO’s “Shots” is catching on.

Also seeing traction? The Resurgence-developed “We Are the A,” with a tune reminiscent of the Boy Scout camp classic “Bear in Tennis Shoes,” which became a catchy staple of pre-season events. It’s no surprise, either, that a call-and-response of “Atlanta … United” has also taken off across the stadium.

Then, there’s also “Ohhhh, Josef Martinez,” which fits nicely in the six-note progression that the White Stripes’ “Seven-Nation Army” gifted worldwide soccer fans. (It might wind up being put on hold for a while, though, given Martinez's recovery time from an injury sustained during international play.)

These are all part of the progression of fandom that’s slowly unfurling between Atlanta matches.

“We’re putting more capos in the supporters’ section and getting cues from the capo stand,” says 25-year-old Michael Collier, of Terminus Legion, who alternated capo-stand duties with Sakonjic last Saturday. “It’s still going to be baby steps.”

For 31-year-old Andrea Bustamante, who also took on capo stand duties during the match, diversity’s emerging as an important feature of the Atlanta fan base. And as a founder of the emerging Delta 17 supporters’ group, she’s hoping that also manifests in Spanish-language chants.

Photo by Phil West

Even though it’s seemingly young in Atlanta’s development to have five different supporters’ groups, the fans feel that they’re coordinating together well. Terminus Legion’s Sarah Palmer points, as one example, to the creation of the “Give Racism the Red Card” tifo unveiled for the match against the Fire, started at the beginning of the week.

“It didn’t matter what group you were part of; people worked until 1 or 2 a.m. to get it done,” she says. “We’re not letting people define how we work together; we’re definitely building up a trust and determining how we work together.”

For Kelly Carter, president of the Atlanta chapter of American Outlaws and a member of multiple Atlanta supporters’ groups, front office engagement has been key. “It’s still a feeling-out process, but the front office realizes the importance of logistics and the importance of its relationship with supporters’ groups,” she says.

Photo by Phil West

“The supporters have exceeded our expectations and have done a fantastic job, especially for a first-year club,” says Ann Rodriguez, the team’s Vice President of Business Operations. “They have partnered well with each other, collaborating on many match-day projects including everything from tailgates to tifos. They have also worked well with our front office on game day logistics and security issues and are proactively self-policing their own groups. They have been instrumental in finding ways to enhance the match-day experience for all fans.”

This has extended, naturally, to post-match festivities, too, which now include a post-game ceremony in which the Player of the Game hammers a mini golden spike into a mini rail. This past Saturday, as those honors went to Martinez, he hammered the spike right at the supporters’ wall, accepting handshakes and the occasional cheek kiss.

Photo by Phil West

A little ways down the wall, Irish-born midfielder Chris McCann flagged down Terminus Legion member Brian Diefenbach. He wanted to offer, he said, his game-worn jersey for Diefenbach’s St. Patrick’s Day-themed AUFC scarf. (Diefenbach accepted.)

And after the match, the fans dispersed slowly, though some of them returned to the tailgate lot to assess the day and bemoan the long wait until the next home match — which won’t be until April 30 (3 pm ET, FS1, MLS LIVE in Canada).

Theres’s still work to be done, of course. There are several chant catalogs for the SGs to learn and teach the rest of the stadium, between what Resurgence, Terminus Legion, and Footie Mob have offered. And some involve decidedly higher degrees of difficulty than those to which of the rest of the stadium’s fans appear to be initially gravitating.

There’s also talk of creating a 17th minute chant for the team. It’s fueled in part by a mystery “working on the railroad” suggested chant, distributed by unidentified fans, unconnected to any of these supporters' groups, outside the stadium prior to the game. (It did not materialize as perhaps envisioned.)

And there very well may be challenges that manifest in keeping five different supporters’ groups cohesive and united through this first season. But after just two home matches, with a combined crowd of more than 100,000 for those, Atlanta United soccer is off to an impressive start.

“The entire stadium doing the Viking A-T-L clap and hearing that echo off the stadium was just incredible,” said Matthew Stigall, age 32, who both launched the “Atlanta Wants MLS” campaign in 2011, and later became the founding president of Terminus Legion.

“The support so far exceeds my wildest expectations for this team,” he adds. “It's just surreal."

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