There were three items surreptitiously written out on team president Darren Eales’s whiteboard during his media availability on Wednesday:
- Plan tour dates with Waka
- Ask supporters for a different… (the rest is indecipherable, but internet sleuths are on it)
- Liga MX friendly
The to-do list was behind Eales, within sight for media attending the availability over Zoom. Not all of the items were addressed directly during the session on Wednesday (still waiting on confirmation from Waka Flocka Flame about said tour), but the list represented important tidbits Eales provided about the state of Atlanta United and what supporters can look forward to in 2022.
With roughly five weeks remaining until the team’s home opener against Sporting Kansas City on Feb. 27, a lot of excitement is building around the club’s new season. Eales attributed a lot of this to Gonzalo Pineda, the club’s head coach who guided Atlanta to the tie for most points in the league during the second half of 2021.
Pineda joined the team in August, which makes 2022 his first full season with the club.
“We've looked to keep our core group together, both with our roster and also with our coaching staff,” Eales said. “Now we're going to have a chance to get a real full preseason under our belt, so we're really looking forward to this season that's coming up.”
The type of excitement Pineda and the team created has carried over into the fan experience. According to Eales, the club had 91 percent of its season ticket holders renew for the 2022 season. Even during a pandemic, the club continues to have strong attendance numbers, leading MLS by far and even qualifying as one of the best soccer clubs in the world.
Atlanta United’s fan support is one of the best in the league – and players have taken note. In an anonymous survey conducted by the MLS Players Association this past offseason, players voted Atlanta United as the best environment to play in. Atlanta United also finished at the top as the most desired club MLS players want to play.
“That speaks volumes of our supporters and what we’re trying to create here in Atlanta,” Eales said.
Eales plans to build off that positivity to reach fans beyond Atlanta. On Wednesday, Eales announced the club will play a preseason game at Turner Soccer Complex at the University of Georgia.
Atlanta United has never played in Athens before, but it’s a place where the club might overlap nicely with fans of the school’s athletic prowess. Just last week, the UGA football team won the College Football Playoff, the program’s first title in 41 years – a result that Eales hopes will rub off on Atlanta United as the club kicks off its season.
“Obviously, it was fantastic to see the Georgia Bulldogs win the college football national championship so it's good to have another winner in the state over the last five years,” Eales said. “We're excited about playing there and just having a chance to meet our supporters where they are.”
Meeting supporters where they are is a defining quality of Eales. He’s regularly interacting with fans – whether it’s at a tailgate before a match or having a pint at a pub party or dropping tweets whenever the team is about to announce a new player signing.
Atlanta United’s president values connecting with fans and takes great pride in it. Atlanta United hosted some events in 2021 to connect with fans in a refreshing way, like when Pineda invited supporters to attend a training session at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground. That day, the club tended to its relationship with its fans, a relationship that had been restricted because of health and safety precautions in effect during the pandemic.
The club is planning to reach fans in more ways during 2022. Eales mentioned meet-and-greets at breweries. Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be open at full capacity for three home Atlanta United matches, an exciting sign after a cautious re-opening in 2021 and no fans in the stadium the year before.
“We can't take it for granted, and I say that for Atlanta United, but I also say that broadly for the sport of soccer,” Eales said. “The reality is that atmosphere that you have in-stadium is what makes the game fantastic. Yes, we still had the games when we're playing with no fans, but it wasn't the same. It didn't have the same energy, didn't have the same momentum, didn’t feel the same for the players, for the coaches. So it's something we can never take for granted.”
Along with the friendly in Athens, Eales shared that Atlanta United will be revealing a new kit before the season begins. The club plans to launch the kit with an in-person event.
It’s an exciting sign that the club is able to return to these types of events with its supporters. When the BLVCK kit was announced prior to the 2021 season, Covid restrictions forced the club to be innovative with the launch. Atlanta United hosted a drive-in theater style event at the Home Depot Backyard outside the stadium. The setting allowed supporters to feel safe and stay within their cars, and those who didn’t yet feel comfortable could view the event on a live stream.
“As we think about Atlanta United and how we built the club, it’s fundamental to us, that connection with our supporters,” Eales said. “They're the heartbeat of the club.”
These preseason events kick off what will be an exciting year for MLS and soccer fans. It’s a World Cup year with the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar beginning in November. The MLS season was scheduled to accommodate the international tournament. Atlanta United’s season begins at home on Feb. 27 against Sporting Kansas City. The club will play 17 matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
One of those matches will be against a new opponent for Atlanta United. Expansion club Charlotte FC will have its inaugural season in 2022, and the franchise has already made bold predictions that it will break MLS attendance records.
“It’s been exciting to see how they've been building the club,” Eales said. “I’m very excited about the opening game they're going to have. If they can get the big number that they're talking about, this is what we need in the league to drive things forward.”
Atlanta plays Charlotte twice and both matches come early in the season (March 13 and April 9). Already, there’s an undercurrent of a rivalry stirring between the two clubs. Given the nicknames for each, “Kings of the South” for Atlanta and “Queen City” for Charlotte, Eales threw out another moniker for the matchup: the Royal Rumble.
“We’re going to enjoy having that rivalry with Charlotte,” Eales said. “It’s good for the league that we've got clubs coming in that are pushing the envelope, and I think it just sort of speaks to the excitement that there is for MLS and soccer in North America.”
That excitement is propelled by the next World Cup and the one following four years after. The 2026 FIFA World Cup will be hosted in Canada, Mexico and the United States. A global event of this scale on American soil will surely bring more fans to MLS.
And Atlanta could potentially play an even bigger role in 2026. The city has made a bid to host. FIFA representatives heard the pitch and were shown around the city. Now, it’s a waiting game – but Eales expects a decision sometime in the first quarter of this year.
“There’s so many things that speaks for Atlanta,” Eales said. “We’re obviously not taking it for granted until we actually get the decision, but I think we're very hopeful that we put our best foot forward and think that Atlanta deserves to be one of the host cities.”
Atlanta has a strong case for winning its bid. When Eales shared his own pitch, it was clear how much Atlanta has working in its favor. Eales called Mercedes-Benz Stadium “magnificent” and said it’s one of the best stadiums in the world. He argued the city has hosted big events before like Super Bowls, college national championships and the 1996 Olympics. He noted the airport, MARTA railway and convenience of having plenty of options for housing.
“Atlanta itself is one of the hidden jewels of North America,” Eales said. “It's an amazing city. It's diverse, it’s young, it's growing.”
Hosting a World Cup in its city would certainly help Atlanta United move forward with its goal of becoming a global brand. In a similar way, there’s hope the World Cup will strengthen MLS on a global scale, especially the relationship between the U.S. and its fellow hosts, Canada and Mexico.
The relationship with Mexico is one that fits naturally with Atlanta United. Pineda is from Mexico and played with Mexico’s national team, and starting in 2023, Atlanta United will participate in the revamped Leagues Cup, a tournament that all teams in MLS and the Mexican professional league Liga MX will compete in. With that in mind, the Atlanta United front office considers Mexico as perhaps one of the major areas where it can grow the brand.
“Already with our attendances we feel like we're one of the biggest clubs in the hemisphere, so Mexico is a natural area that we'll be looking to sort of have a little bit more connection with,” Eales said.
So could the last bullet point written on Eales' board be, like his tweets, a hint of some kind? Eales was coy when asked directly, and there’s not a definitive answer, but Atlanta United fans can be sure that Eales is thinking about the big picture.
Whether it’s Athens, the World Cup or beyond, Eales is unafraid of leading the charge to meet supporters – wherever they may be.
“I feel like we're on a real opportunity of growth here and that's hugely important for Major League Soccer and within that for Atlanta United as one of the leading clubs to be pushing the envelope,” he said. “And that's hopefully what we'll do.”
Atlanta United kicks off the 2022 season on Feb. 27 against Sporting Kansas City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Click here to view tickets.