ATLANTA – How do Atlanta United build on their dreamy first two years of existence? What more could we possibly ask of this ambitious, game-changing and now championship-winning franchise?
My colleague Sam Stejskal broke down the technical side of this discussion adeptly, summarizing the personnel decisions awaiting the Five Stripes this winter.
My angle is a bit different, and it starts by looking across the Mercedes-Benz Stadium pitch at the team ATLUTD vanquished on Saturday – and glancing up into that hulking venue’s northwest corner, where the visiting side’s devoted fans clustered for the big game, and represented themselves in fine style all 90-plus minutes.
Though they came closer than some have given them credit for, the Portland Timbers couldn’t quite pull off one more upset road win in their amazing Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs run. However, the long-term body of work that club have built – over the past decade under owner Merritt Paulson’s leadership, as well as going back two or three generations to their original 1975 inception in the old NASL – is a model for everyone in modern North American pro soccer.
Yes, even Atlanta United.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a heavily-used catchphrase among business types, a remark generally attributed to Austrian-American academic and management consultant Peter Drucker that many of us get tired of hearing, but remains very useful. And I’m dropping it in here because it’s an equation that matters a lot in this game.
We can now safely say that Atlanta got their strategies right, and right from the jump. They built a very good front office, which led to the construction of a very good team, and then promoted it to their community very intelligently and authentically.
Along the way, they and their fans began to lay the groundwork for a strong culture to grow up around those institutions, as you can see by watching Monday’s victory parade, or the lively pregame tailgating scene down at “The Gulch,” or the teeming masses in the supporters’ section behind the east goal at MBS.
But we’re still only two years in. As myriad and passionate as those “17's” may be, they haven’t had to experience suffering as ATLUTD fans, or even mediocrity, for that matter. By my count the Five Stripes have lost a measly five times across all competitions in that building. And as well as both fans and the club have done so far, they’ve barely even existed long enough to encounter friction over the things that can so often put supporters and executives at odds around the world: stadium policies, ticket costs, misbehaving fans, popular players departing and much more.
The Timbers faithful, and others like them across the league, have been through all that and much more down through the decades. And what’s particularly remarkable about their staying power across several leagues, lots of losing seasons and long stretches of general barrenness on the American soccer scene is that their fans have set the tone about as often as, perhaps more so than, club officials.
I learned a lot this during a longform piece on Portland’s 2015 MLS Cup run, which provided the opportunity to mingle with some hard-core Timbers supporters before that big game at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus.
“They used to sell $2 beer on Thursdays, it was called 'Thirsty Thursday.' People sort of migrated down towards the stadium, and we watched bad soccer and we drank $2 beers,” said old-school Timbers Army member Mike Kocher.
“What started [the Timbers Army] was a bunch of people who were kind of rowdy,” he added. “And they would take 5-gallon pickle barrels into the stadium and would flip them upside-down, buy cheap tickets in the end zone behind the opponents' goal, and they would beat on the drums and yell obscenities at the goalies. Obscenities! And they would make every bad hand signal they could at the goalie when he was on the other end … Eventually it just started to turn into a gathering point.”
From those humble origins grew an organized, service-oriented and fiercely devoted culture of support that connected the soccer club to its community in ways that ensure that the Timbers live, both literally and metaphorically, at the heart of the Rose City, and vice versa, whether they’re contending for trophies or propping up the standings.
They've also proved to be dedicated backers of the Timbers' sibling club, the NWSL's Thorns. And every year their fans travel, in numbers and noise, at levels that few in MLS or NWSL can match. Those who move away from the city routinely journey to reunite with their soccer clan. It’s all truly something to behold.
The Terminus Legion, Footie Mob and the rest of ATLUTD’s supporters groups, working in cooperation with the club and in an admirable reflection of the best aspects of their city, have already built an impressive community, as the ringing eardrums of everyone who attended Saturday’s final can attest. Now they have the chance to plunge those roots even deeper into that red Georgia soil, and blossom into something even bigger and bolder, something that can last for decades to come.