MLS Cup final: Atlanta United’s fairy tale rise comes to a head with chance to finally put the city on the map

Leaving Tottenham Hotspur behind for a new life in the MLS, Atlanta United president Darren Eales is dreaming of what success this weekend could do for sport in Georgia

Friday 07 December 2018 08:36
Atlanta United claimed the Eastern Conference final to book their place in the MLS Cup final
Atlanta United claimed the Eastern Conference final to book their place in the MLS Cup final

When it was announced that Darren Eales was leaving Spurs in 2014, the Englishman said he was heading to Atlanta in the hope of turning the MLS’s newest franchise into ‘a great success story’.

In reality, he has played a full role in creating a sporting fairy tale.

Atlanta United will run out on home soil on Saturday night in their first ever MLS Cup final against the Portland Timbers in a match that will attract a crowd in excess of 70,000.

Not bad going for a club that before the 2017 had never played a competitive match but an achievement entirely in keeping for a team that now finds itself among the 15 best supported sides in world football.

The club now boasts the top nine highest attendances in MLS history, with its crowd of 73,243 against the Seattle Sounders in July coming top of a league table that it’s single-handedly re-writing. After Saturday, it will have completed a clean sweep of the top 10.

Eales was director of football administration at Tottenham

“It’s just over four years since I started here in Atlanta,” Eales tells The Independent. “The plan was that was the lower bowl of the Mercedes Benz Stadium would be set up for Atlanta United – with a capacity of 29,000.

“That was felt to be fairly aggressive. If we could have got 29,000 back then it would have been considered a real success. But it has just gone from strength to strength.

“We’ve built the club and to have this season capped off with us hosting the MLS Cup, with another 70,000 people watching. It Is pretty remarkable.”

Atlanta reached the final having swept aside both New York franchises, with their home tie against New York City in the MLS Eastern Conference semi-final back in November also seeing them surpass the one million ticket mark for the 2018 season.

Atlanta City have attracted regular crowds of more than 70,000 fans

Given that they’ve built a fanbase from a standing start of zero, that’s a figure as impressive as the giant silver Tifo of coach, Gerardo Martino, that was raised during the first half of that match against their Big Apple opponents.

“If I go back to when I took the job and first came here, the one watch-out was that everyone told me Atlanta was a fickle sports town,” says Eales.

“It had had an ice hockey team that had come and gone and people said that whatever sport you went to there was almost as many supporters from the opposition team in the building when they played their games.

“That was at the forefront of my mind but what was perceived as a weakness has actually been our greatest strength.

“This is a growing, young, exciting city. People are coming from other places and soccer is just such a young people’s sport here in America that no-one really has those soccer allegiances.

“What we found is that Atlanta United really unites the city. It’s amazing the number of cars you see with an Atlanta United magnet alongside one for the Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bulls.

“People carry that baggage from their dad taking them to a Philidelphia Eagles game when they were young , so they’ll always be an Eagles supporter for NFL. But when it comes to soccer and the pride they have in the city, Atlanta United is how they show it.”

Eales was director of football administration at Tottenham

With the Atlanta Falcons hardly flying high in the NFL at the present time – they currently find themselves bottom of the NFC South – the achievements of the city’s soccer upstarts have generated even more pride.

“We had a City Council welcome to acknowledge us making it to the cup and our supporters turned up and everyone was singing the songs,” says Eales.

“That’s the other factor is that it’s such a different atmosphere from the other American sports.

“That’s something that really has engaged the city and engaged the fan base. I think that’s why we’re growing year-on-year.

“People are bringing their friends along, who might not otherwise have been interested in soccer. They come to the game and just become hooked on the atmosphere, the match and the sport.

“There has been a history here – and I’ve been reminded of this a lot this week – of Atlanta losing in heart-breaking fashion in finals. There’s a history of not winning that trophy, that big one. 1995 was the last time with the Atlanta Braves (in Baseball’s World Series).

“This is a city that’s desperate for success and hopefully we can deliver. If we do it will be meltdown in the city until the following week.”

After everything they’ve achieved so far, it would take a brave punter to bet against it.

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