By Tommy Housworth, contributor
Despite having Atlanta United season tickets for the past two years, I can’t honestly say I know enough about soccer – MLS nor the game itself – to pass a pop quiz. I never played as a kid, and I’ve never raised a Guinness at Meehan’s while watching Liverpool and Manchester square off. And yet, a half-hour into my first United match in 2017, I was hooked. Hooked on the adrenaline. Hooked on the contagious energy. Hooked on being a part of 70,000 rowdy and proud fans.
One of the first things that impressed me was the diversity of the Atlanta United crowd. While not a revealing observation, given soccer’s standing as the most international of team sports, it has, nonetheless, made attending a match all the more inspiring. For 90+ minutes each home game, Mercedes-Benz Stadium serves as a metaphor for how many of us would like to imagine America: open, supportive, and yes, united.
Of course, it all starts on the field, and in 2018, Major League Soccer reported that theirs was the most diverse league in North American professional sports, with 72 countries represented on their collective rosters. Compare that to 47 nations under the banner of the National Basketball Association, and the NFL, NHL, and MLB all comparatively lagging in the mid-20’s.
This is not to say that other professional American sports deserve a yellow card for under-performance on recruiting teams that cover the cultural spectrum. However, as a new generation of sports fans claim the mantle from seats that have often been populated by the middle-aged caucasian male, it’s refreshing to see athletes and fans alike that represent what I believe has been one of America’s greatest strengths: a community of people who don’t claim “color blindness” but instead celebrate their various cultural differences, bringing each to the table to illuminate and share.
The ceremonial elements that precede the start of an Atlanta United soccer match include a powerful statement broadcast on the stadium’s halo screen overhead. “Soccer for All” is a public service announcement featuring an array of MLS stars, setting the tone for what is expected from all taking part in the day’s activities, from the midfielders and refs to the hot dog vendors and fans.
According to MLS Soccer’s website, “Soccer for All symbolizes “the fact that everyone is welcome to MLS regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status, Soccer For All emphasizes Major League Soccer’s commitment to end discrimination and showcases the collective efforts taking place throughout the league to drive positive social change.”
By the time the opening whistle is blown, fans have also witnessed a welcome video featuring Atlanta’s own Big Boi and Lil’ Jon, as well as the hammering of the ceremonial spike, which has been performed by everyone from country star Zak Brown and filmmaker Ron Howard to hip-hop artists like Killer Mike and Waka Flocka. The National Anthem is performed while signed in American Sign Language. Then the ceremonial first kick is often performed by a young person challenged by a disability. None of these elements are unique to MLS, but collectively, they serve to make a bold statement about what values the league embodies.
Some may grumble what I’ve just described sounds like politically correct cow-towing, but the palpable energy created by upward of 70,000 fans, composed of a true tapestry of backgrounds and creeds, is a deeply empowering and encouraging experience. In our current climate, when both systemic and personal accounts of racism and xenophobia seem to be daily occurrences (though POC and immigrants would tell you it’s always been so), to be reminded we can share the same enthusiasms and heartbreaks, if only for the length of regulation plus overage time, is heartening.
As Major League Soccer continues to take our city by storm, I’d like to believe that it’s because of more than Arthur Blank’s planning off the field and Josef Martinez’s shrewd artistry on the pitch. It’s due, in part, to a team of players that hail from homes in Argentina and Angola, Germany and Ireland, and yes, Locust Grove and Powder Springs. It’s also because soccer, with its global appeal, serves as an open-armed invitation to everyone in the Dirty South, from Cedartown to Dunwoody, Palmetto to Chamblee.
Soccer still has strides to make, as evidenced by the issues surrounding gender parity brought into sharp focus after the U.S. Women’s World Cup win. With representatives as eloquent and vocal as Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, it is surely a concern that won’t get shelved anytime soon.
And while fans from college football to NASCAR continue to diversify, Major League Soccer’s proactive invitation of inclusion goes a long way in restoring a sense of hope for an America we know still exists. It’s still there beneath the dark clouds of Tweet-storms and vitriol. It exists in every high-five after each header into the net.
Policy issues may not be getting resolved in the Five Stripes Supporters’ Section, and yet it feels like every chant and cheer manifests as a proud and rowdy refutation of every “Build That Wall” and “Send Her Back” that has emanated from a red-hatted rally. After all, it would be hypocritical to cheer on players of different cultures and colors while denying their brothers and sisters their rightful dignity, wouldn’t it?
Atlanta United, indeed.