Miguel Almiron celebrates - Atlanta United - June 17, 2017
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United's debut at Mercedes-Benz Stadium a lifelong dream come true

Jason Longshore was born and raised in metro Atlanta. He has worked for professional and amateur soccer clubs in Atlanta, served as the Chief Development Officer of the non-profit organization Soccer in the Streets, and is now the color commentator for the Atlanta United radio network. He also co-hosts a syndicated radio show Soccer Down Here that covers the sport in the South. 

Atlanta United will take the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday (3:30 pm ET | FS1, MLS LIVE in Canada). I’ll be on the microphone, part of the first ATLUTD radio broadcast at Arthur Blank’s sporting palace, as the club chases a playoff place in its expansion season. Just typing that still feels an awful lot like a dream. For soccer in Atlanta, it has been a wild ride to get to this point. That journey is why this team, this season and this stadium mean so much to us.

The soccer bug bit me in 1986, one year after a picking up the game at my local YMCA, games on television and Diego Maradona’s World Cup heroics sparking a full-on-obsession. I wondered why Atlanta didn’t have a soccer team like the Falcons, Braves, and Hawks. I read all about the Atlanta Chiefs and the Georgia Generals. I got by for years by playing as often as possible, reading Soccer America magazine and checking every soccer book out of the local library.

It took a while, but Atlanta finally had a team to call our own when the Atlanta Ruckus came to town in 1995, my senior year in high school. I had a chance to see two of my favorites from the 1990 World Cup team, John Doyle and Bruce Murray, up close. The Ruckus made the A-League final in their inaugural season, falling to the Seattle Sounders, but like many teams from that era, they found long-term survival difficult.

Atlanta missed out on an MLS team in 1996. There wasn’t a suitable place to play or a local owner willing to step up. Meanwhile, the Ruckus went through ownership changes, but tried to keep going. I worked for the team in college. The lessons I learned were worth the bounced checks. The club fell apart, but the Silverbacks emerged in their place. I worked with them as well. For all its talk, the club never had the means to give Atlanta the level of soccer it deserved and was unable to capture the city’s imagination.

All along the way, people told me that soccer wouldn’t work in Atlanta, or anywhere in the South for that matter. They said soccer couldn’t compete with other sports. Even after Atlanta United had a name and started selling record amounts of season tickets, people said it wouldn’t last.

Those folks are pretty quiet these days. Atlanta are setting records for MLS attendance, professional soccer is booming all over the Southeast with new teams scattered throughout the US Soccer pyramid and record numbers of kids are playing the game. I’m even hosting a radio show that covers it all. The 1986 World Cup feels like a lifetime ago.

Opening Day at Bobby Dodd Stadium for the first game was a whirlwind. I never expected to see so many people wearing Atlanta United’s red, black, and gold. This was not a see-and-be-seen social hour. The 55,297 fans who were there – the fourth largest soccer crowd in the world that weekend – came to start a movement. They haven’t stopped coming. These days, I can’t go anywhere without seeing Atlanta United gear.

Kids in this region now have heroes, their own Maradonas and Doyles playing for their city every week. They show up at ATLUTD’s world-class training facility wearing Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez jerseys. They watch Tito Villalba break Orlando City’s heart over and over again. They see Homegrown players like Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin and know, if they’re good enough and work hard enough, they could play for their hometown club someday.

When I pulled on a Clayton County YMCA Mustangs jersey back in the day, there was no professional future to aspire to or team to support. Come 2018, Atlanta United will likely have five academy signings on the first team. One day, Atlanta United could be the first team in MLS to field an entire squad of Homegrown talent.

I hope I’m around to call that match. This season makes me feel like a kid again, too.

On Sunday, in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Atlanta soccer community will move into a building that truly feels like home. Yes, the Falcons call it home too, but it was built with soccer in mind from the very beginning. As loud as the crowds have been at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Mercedes-Benz Stadium should be the loudest building in the league. Atlanta United won’t settle for anything but the best, and there’s no doubt they, along with many others, will continue to elevate MLS in the years to come.

This isn’t a dream. It’s not a flash in the pan. The journey to get here has been bumpy at times. There have plenty of growing pains along the way. Sometimes, despite my optimism and love of the game, I wondered if it would ever happen. And if it did, would it actually work? It turns out professional soccer in Atlanta was just waiting to blossom.

It took decades, but every seed planted along the way eventually bloomed. The original Atlanta Chiefs helped start youth programs in the late '60s that continue today. Every year, those camps and clinics introduced soccer to kids who are now parents and grandparents, who planted seeds of their own. Fifty years later, those seeds sprouted to reveal red, black, and gold, the club’s Five Stripes and magical first season thanks in large part to the roots cultivated over the years.

This sport and this club are here to stay. Soccer and Atlanta United are part of my hometown’s cultural fabric. The beautiful game has found its next hotbed in the South. It is an honor and a privilege for me to have some small part in that. Sunday will be a special day for soccer fans, young and old, in Atlanta. We’ll go home.

Topics: 

Atlanta United gear | mlsstore.com

Shop mlsstore.com for Darlington Nagbe jerseys plus Atlanta United hats, hoodies, jerseys, shirts and more.

Stay connected: Get access to breaking news, videos, and analysis from North America's best soccer reporters via "This Week in MLS" newsletter or using our FREE mobile app.