Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, had expressed interest in an MLS franchise as far back as 2007 but when plans for a new multi-use stadium took shape, the odds of landing a team grew and the city was awarded one in 2014.
At the time, naysayers complained soccer couldn't compete in a crowded market that already had the Falcons, the NBA's Hawks, Major League Baseball's Braves and Georgia Tech. Fans in the city were often labeled as fickle, too. The Atlanta Thrashers often had some of the NHL's lowest average attendance figures (among other issues) before relocating to Winnipeg in 2011.
The only inkling of how a soccer team might do in the region was the Atlanta Silverbacks, who drew an average of 4,677 fans (in a 5,000-seat stadium) in 2013 while playing in the North American Soccer League — the year before MLS awarded the city a franchise.
No one anticipated this. Going into the team's inaugural year, the United sold well over 30,000 season tickets, a league record. The team now leads MLS in attendance, drawing an average of 47,926. That's ahead of perennial attendance leader Seattle, which also shares a stadium with an NFL team.
Atlanta's average attendance was boosted considerably Saturday as the big crowd watched the United's 3-3 draw against Orlando. The upper deck was opened for the match. The previous MLS mark of 69,225 was set at the Rose Bowl by the Los Angeles Galaxy in 1996.
The United's game also was the best-attended domestic game in the United States since the New York Cosmos sold over 77,000 tickets for a North American Soccer League playoff game at Giants Stadium in 1977.
"It's incredible," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "I think it says that there are really no limits. We never really expected this to happen." Orlando City coach Jason Kreis was also impressed. "I think what Atlanta is doing here with the way they built the team, with the infrastructure that they have, with the training facility, with the stadium, all of those are really good signs and kind of setting a new benchmark in the league for what clubs ought to do. I think that is really positive. To have a crowd here tonight like we did, another benchmark to say, 'This is what the league can be.' I am really pleased to have been part of it," Kreis said.
With the draw, Atlanta extended its home unbeaten streak to nine consecutive matches, and the team is now 8-2-2 overall at home. The United were initially supposed to begin the season at the $1.5 billion stadium they share with the Falcons, but construction delays pushed back the opening three times, and the team played home games at Bobby Dodd Stadium (home of Georgia Tech) to open the season.
United goalkeeper Brad Guzan was looking at the big picture following the match: He hopes Atlanta's success boosts the entire league. "I think it means the league is growing. It means soccer down here is definitely huge and popular, which is good for us. Hopefully, this will catch on around to some other clubs in the league and this will start to be more of a consistent turnout," he said.
One final note: MLS said Saturday's game was the fourth best-attended soccer match in the world that day, just behind Bayern Munich against FC Mainz in the Bundesliga (75,000) and ahead of Tottenham Hotspur against Swansea City in the Premier League (65,366).
MATCH OF THE WEEK: The Portland Timbers emerged from a three-game road trip with four points to land in second place in the Western Conference. The team now gets three of the last four at home, starting with Sunday's match against Orlando City.
Keep an eye on Portland's Diego Valeri , who has scored in his last eight matches, an MLS record. PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Atlanta United's Josef Martinez earned the weekly honors with a pair of hat tricks in consecutive matches.
Martinez scored three first-half goals in Atlanta's 7-0 shutout of New England on Sept. 13. He added three more in the 3-3 draw with Orlando. He is just the third player in league history to have back-to-back hat tricks.
Martinez has 16 goals this season and is tied for fourth in the league. FIFTH FIRING: When the New England Revolution fired coach Jay Heaps on Tuesday, it became the fifth MLS team to dismiss its head coach this season. That's a new high for the league.
Heaps had been with the team as a player or coach for 15 seasons. Assistant coach Tom Soehn will take over for the rest of the season.