Sandy McAfee: It’s a Thursday afternoon in Marietta, Georgia. It’s mid-September which means, outside, it’s still pretty hot. But when you find that slice of shade, it feels a little more like fall. I’m sitting across from Jason Longshore, local radio talent. He calls all of Atlanta United’s matches on the local station 92.9 The Game. He’s also a host of the daily podcast “Soccer Down Here.” Any Atlanta United fan, or Georgia soccer fan for that matter, will recognize his voice almost instantly. Some might call him the voice of Atlanta soccer.

Jason Longshore: I’m Jason Longshore, color commentator for Atlanta United’s radio network on 92.9 The Game. We are hoping that it doesn’t start pouring down rain here at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, or we hope we don’t get struck by lightning. We make no guarantees.

SM: The two of us are both locals, both Atlanta natives. I am from Lawrenceville and graduated from Peachtree Ridge in Gwinnett County. Jason went to high school at Eagle’s Landing in Stockbridge. We both went to college up the road, up 316 at the University of Georgia in Athens. I think I speak for the pair of us when I say: Go Dawgs. And we both cover soccer. Jason, a little longer than I have. In fact, he calls himself a self-proclaimed soccer nut.

JL: I was born and raised in Atlanta and fell in love with the game in 1986. I played one season of baseball and didn’t really enjoy it and wanted to do something different the next spring, and it was the spring of ‘86. The local YMCA where I played basketball had a soccer league, and I had never played. I played soccer a couple of times in gym class. My parents didn’t know soccer. It was just something completely brand new, and I liked it. I didn’t really have a context for it, but I liked it. It was fun. As the new kid, they put me in goal. I played goalkeeper most of the season, but I did get to play on the field a little bit and scored a goal, and I can actually still remember how that goal happened. It was a shot from outside the 18, and I beat the goalkeeper to the far side.

SM: Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Atlanta at the time was the capital of college football. The Atlanta Braves were a budding dynasty. The same year that Jason discovered soccer, the sport’s largest competition happened.

JL: And in that summer, the World Cup happened, and you know, this is before the days of being able to look up what sports are going to be on TV on your phone. I actually stumbled on it on ESPN in the afternoon one day that summer when I was home from school. And then it all started to make sense for me. And I saw a couple of games, but the game that hooked me forever was the semifinal between Argentina and Belgium and Diego Maradona’s performance in that game. I didn’t see the game against England. That’s the super famous one with the ‘Hand of God’ goal and the goal of the century from midfield. I saw the next one, the semifinal against Belgium, and he had two amazing goals in that.

SM: Argentina would go on to defeat West Germany in the World Cup final that year. It’s a match that Jason remembers quite well. 

JL: Watched the final, and that was the first game that I remembered what time it was coming on, what channel, making sure that I’m available to watch it. And after the game, I went out in the backyard and wanted to run around and recreate the goals from Argentina. And I was hooked. That week changed my life because it made the game that I had started to like, really make sense. And it gave it context, so I understood what it was supposed to look like at the top level, and I fell in love with it.

SM: Long before getting in the booth, Jason worked for the Atlanta Ruckus, the pro team before the Silverbacks – spoiler alert, the Ruckus will be one of the teams that we’ll be covering on this very podcast. And Jason knows the Ruckus pretty well.

JL: So, I went to every game, and I started writing a match report. I didn’t really know what to call it. I just wrote about the game. So writing these match reports on the North American Soccer mailing list, the general manager for the Ruckus read them and reached out and asked me if I would be interested in writing the club’s press releases. Initially, I was a volunteer, and this was my second year of college, and I’m like ‘Yeah, I don’t have to pay for the games anymore. Great, I can get in for free. This is awesome.’ So, I basically started doing the same thing, just writing a match report as the press release, and I’d do a pregame preview and would be in charge of faxing that out to the local media and, you know, all the things that are so different about the communications roles today.

SM: Jason tells me he continued writing about lower division teams and the national team to stay connected to the sport. And eventually, he found his way back into soccer.

JL: Stayed connected to it but didn’t have a job in soccer for a while, and I really missed it. So, I didn’t really know what getting back into the soccer industry was going to look like when I decided it was what I was missing in my life. And I reached out to an organization that we had worked with, with the Ruckus called Soccer in the Streets.

SM: Soccer in the Streets is a non-profit organization that spreads the sport on the grassroots level. Jason served various roles at Soccer in the Streets, including 10 years as the Chief Development Officer.

JL: And started with them part-time. I kind of, really funny, said the same thing, writing press releases and doing some marketing. And I stayed there for 10 years, and during my time with Soccer in the Streets, I did everything from organize events to coach to start with grant writing and fundraising and did a little bit of everything as the organization went from a 2-and-a-half-person staff, when I joined it, I was the half person, to what it’s become today, which is a huge noon-profit here in the metro-Atlanta area.

SM: Jason had a hand in almost every aspect of the sport. Except perhaps one. Enter Atlanta United.

JL: As everything was coming together with Atlanta United, I worked with Soccer in the Streets building the relationship with Atlanta United. And one of the last grants that I wrote for Soccer in the Streets was a six-figure grant with Atlanta United and getting soccer programs into Atlanta public schools. So, I had gotten to know Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, and everybody that was here at the beginning. And when the radio deal came up at the very last minute, I had called one game before in preseason that year over in Charleston for the ESPN coastal radio station. We did the Atlanta Seattle game. It was the first Atlanta United game on the radio, and that was my one game of tape that I had and sent it in, and you know, the relationship that I had built up with Darren and Carlos and Matt Moore, they gave me the opportunity to be on the call for that first game, and I’ve been there ever since. So, I’ve done a little bit of everything in the game from operations to communications to coaching to playing when I was young to organizing to advocating to now broadcasting. And it gives me a unique perspective, I think, for my role as an analyst in radio. I have, I think, a very different perspective than a lot of other analysts or color commentators would have.

SM: Another role Jason had, although much more quietly and unofficially, was archivist. His research began as an interest in the sport, and soon he found himself documenting the waves the sport made throughout the 20th century and keeping a record of it. In fact, when I approached him about this project, he sent me what he had. It was a Google Doc with all the notes he’d ever taken on the subject over the years. And he was very, very thorough. The document was over 175 pages long.

JL: It’s funny. I would have to go back and see when I actually started this document. I don’t remember. I was, I was that little kid back in the day when I fell in love with the game, and I had seen a World Cup, but we didn’t have a professional league, so there wasn’t any games on TV. There wasn’t a U.S. league. There wasn’t anything that I was used to being just a little sports fan and knowing the Braves and the Hawks and the Falcons and knowing what leagues looked like. We didn’t have any of that, so I went to the library, and I read every book that the Clayton County library had on soccer, probably five times. As I started to get more and more involved in Atlanta soccer and doing different things, I would see historical facts referenced that I knew were incorrect, and I knew there was more to the story than what had been put out there. And I felt like whether it was the Atlanta Chiefs and their early story, it felt like there were missing elements to the basic narrative of they started, they won a championship, they went away, and then they came back, and then they went away again, and then it didn’t work. I knew there was more to it than that, and I wanted to figure out the why and the how and why it didn’t work at that time and what impact it had on what is working now.

SM: Jason’s work now seems invaluable because information, especially on the early days of soccer, isn’t easy to find. Nowadays, we can get an answer to any question right at our fingertips with tools like Google. But to get a sense of what soccer was like at the turn of the century, in the 50s and 60s, in the high schools and colleges during those times, it takes a different approach. It’s a little more old school. And a lot more time-consuming: visiting libraries, reading books, scouring old newspapers. This is the work archivists do, the scholars of the sport.

JL: What was maybe the most interesting to me about it was I knew about when the Chiefs started because I knew when the North American Soccer League existed, but I didn’t know there were college teams before that. I didn’t know that there were a handful of high school teams before that. I had no idea that soccer was played in Atlanta in the 20s and in the 10s and those stories, didn’t know any of that. And it felt like every day that I would sit down to research, and it started honestly with microfilm at a library and literally typing out the notes until it got to where you could cut and paste and find different things a lot easier, I would learn something new it felt like every day, about either a person that was involved or a player or about a game or about a team. And it was just so fascinating to me that, you know, when I would have time, I’d keep adding to it and finding new little nuggets of the history that can’t get lost, and that’s what, over time especially in the last few years has really stuck with me. And maybe it’s a byproduct of what we went through with Covid and the lockdowns and all of that, that we can’t let some of these stories just vanish. I think it’s so important to document it and tell it, but to tell it thoroughly and correctly, and that’s the balancing act that I’m always trying to hit.

SM: Jason will be our guide as we take a closer look at the history of soccer in Atlanta. And that’s what brings us here. The two of us are at a table outside, yes, we’re in the shade, at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground. This is where Atlanta United trains. It’s also where most of the staff at the club work. The team concluded training a little while ago, and soon, staff will head out of the building to take part in the games held every Thursday afternoon appropriately titled “Staff Soccer.” As we record, we see staff members make their way, in cleats and gear, including Pedro Hernandez, our director of security, who tries to sneak by quietly as Jason is talking.

JL: So that kind of took away a lot of the leadership that could’ve grown it to the next level.

SM: Pedro’s tiptoeing.

JL: Nice tiptoeing Pedro. [laughter]

SM: The facility was founded at the same time Atlanta United was. And as someone who works here every day, I can say it’s really exceptional. Few clubs have facilities that rival Atlanta United’s. Some national team federations don’t have facilities quite like this one. And this is just where the team practices. About 20 miles down the road is Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home of Atlanta United and the Atlanta Falcons. Just like the Training Ground, the stadium is state-of-the-art. It’s a big reason why in 2021, in an anonymous survey of MLS players, Atlanta United was voted the most desired place to play. That’s right. Atlanta, Georgia is where they want to play. I mean, did you ever imagine that? All of this in a Southern city? In the same city that boasts the pinnacle of college football and the regional kings of MLB? So, what was it that brought Atlanta, of all places, to the top of American soccer? What made this ground so fertile for the sport to grow? Who planted the first seeds? And did they ever think it would grow into what it is now? A beautiful game that unites a city, reflects a fan base and can firmly stake its claim as the capital of soccer in the United States. Before we cover all of that, before we get to Atlanta United, the trophies, the winning, the sellout crowds, the new home of U.S. Soccer, it’s important to know how we got here.

JL: This history of soccer in Atlanta is rich and mostly unknown, but we don’t get to where we are today, with five-figure crowds on a regular basis and sellouts and Atlanta United jerseys and flags everywhere all over town, we don’t get to that without that history.

SM: So, let’s go back, back to the very beginning. Now, for some basic Atlanta history. If you took eighth grade Georgia history in middle school like I did, feel free to skip ahead about 90 seconds. Atlanta was founded in 1837. Back then, it was known as Marthasville, in honor of the governor’s daughter. The city would change its name later. Atlanta was an important transportation hub. It marks the end of the Western and Atlantic railroad line. For that reason, the city also had a nickname: Terminus. Atlanta is situated in a more northern part of the state at an elevation of about 1,000 feet above sea level. That makes Atlanta a little different than other eastern and southern cities and contributes to more of a temperate climate than other areas further south. Wait a minute. Atlanta...temperate? Hmm. Atlanta became the state capitol in 1868. Believe it or not, Atlanta is not the oldest city in the state of Georgia. That would be in Savannah. In fact, Atlanta was one of the last parts of the state to be settled.

Andy Ambrose: Yeah, Atlanta’s a very interesting city. It has a very unique history in many ways. It’s part of the south, definitely located in the south, and yet sometimes it acts differently than other southern cities. And in trying to get a handle on why it behaves so differently at times in its history, I realized there are several forces that were almost present from the beginning that have really influenced Atlanta even up to the present day. One was the age of the city. Just to put it in perspective, it was founded a century after Savannah. It was in the last part of the state to be settled by non-Native Americans, and it took the removal of the Native American tribes, as well as the confiscation of their land to make that possible. But that was how this part of the state got developed.

SM: This is Dr. Andy Ambrose, a local historian. He worked at the Tubman African-American Museum in Macon along with the Atlanta History Center as a historian. And he’s written two books on Atlanta history. So, it’s safe to say he knows a good bit about the subject.

AA: Well, I believe that the three forces that have really been prevalent throughout Atlanta’s history and really explains a lot about how it developed and events that happened are transportation, race relations and boosterism.

SM: From the culmination of the Civil War to the turn of the century, it was a pivotal time for Atlanta. That’s when the city transitioned its labor force. Many people, native Georgians especially, were moving to Atlanta for jobs. Black Atlantans made up about 40 percent of the total population, giving rise to new clusters and communities.

AA: Well, yeah. At the turn of the century in the 1900s, Atlanta was a city that was bursting with energy and building in excitement. A number of things contributed to that. The railroads did. Transportation is playing into this, too. In fact, until 1920s, the railroads were the largest employer in the city, contributing an estimated 100 million dollars to the city’s economy every year. So, that was one thing drawing it in. The other was the opportunities for finding employment, etcetera. So, that was bringing in not only white southerners and white Georgians, but it was bringing in African Americans who were looking for jobs and opportunities, etcetera. So, you’ve got these, at that point it’s primarily just native-born and from Georgia in the south. There are very little immigrants present for the most part. It’s about 4% at the turn of the century. But all of these things are bringing it in, as well as business opportunities that are growing at the same time. So, those account for a lot of what was happening. The railroads brought people there, as well. And so, all of that was making Atlanta kind of “destination city.”

SM: Many of Atlanta’s colleges also reopened during that time. Georgia Tech opened its doors in 1888. Agnes Scott College opened in Decatur in 1889. Black institutions were founded, leading to several HBCUs, or historical black colleges and universities, such as Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta.

AA: It was almost like a Wild West town from the beginning. In fact, the first Atlanta mayor's race was... at that time, there were more bars in Atlanta than there were churches. So, it was a very, kind of rough and tumble place. And over the years, it was much more open to newcomers who had come in. If you had money, if you had a new idea, or whatever, it kind of acclimated a little faster to that. So much so, that some of the southern critics in other cities would call it “that damn Yankee town” because it was so different in many ways. But other ways, very much like the rest.

SM: At the turn of the century, the population of Atlanta reached almost 90,000, making the city the largest in the state. Many of those people were native-born, people both white and Black, were migrating to the city to seek employment. The railroad continued to be a huge factor in the city’s economy.

AA: Another thing that played a really huge role, and continues to today, as anybody who gets out on the interstate can say, is transportation. There was no reason for being, for Atlanta coming to be. It wasn’t a great spot that the explorers came and said, “This is it.” It really was the endpoint of a railroad line, of a proposed railroad line, that was going to go northward to the border with Tennessee, Ross’s Landing, but basically Chattanooga. So, it was the southern endpoint, and that’s what the zero milepost was, and that’s how Atlanta came into being. And it was very aptly the original little settlement that grew up around it was called Terminus, which is very appropriate because it was terminus, end of the line, that’s what it was. And it might’ve stayed that way if not for the fact that other rail lines merged with that location, that zero mile point. And so, early in its history, Atlanta was very important as a railroad community.

SM: A railroad line, a place of opportunity, a zero milepost, a rough and tumble town full of pioneers… It’s kind of cool to think Atlanta was little bit like the old Wild West. Atlanta at the turn of the century was a place of opportunity. A place where people could find employment and start a new life. It was a destination city in a lot of ways and an economic leader. This new migration ushered in a new American era. It was a time for looking ahead. It was a time for new ideas. It was also a time for new traditions, such as a game that involves kicking a ball into a goal with just your feet.

Patrick Sullivan: The growth of soccer in Atlanta is very much tied to Atlanta becoming more of a diverse city.

SM: Patrick Sullivan is another local historian. He works at New South Associates and has been studying the history of the game of soccer for years. He contributed to a book called Soccer Frontiers: The Global Game in the United States, 1863–1913. It was published by the University of Tennessee Press. The chapter that Sullivan wrote focuses on early soccer in Atlanta and the Southeast, which makes him well-versed in the subject.

PS: It was much smaller than it is today. I mean, pretty much what we think of Atlanta as a sprawling, major metropolitan area, really think about the downtown area, not even Midtown, but downtown, as pretty much encompassing what Atlanta was, very much still dominated by the railroad, which is the reason the city was founded and remained pretty much the transportation lifeblood of the city up through the early 20th century. And then outlying areas, again we consider the inlying or interior metro counties such as surrounding Fulton County, DeKalb County, Cobb County, those would have still been predominantly rural areas with small towns generally going to be county seats, like Decatur or Marietta as being the major settlements in those counties.

SM: In three decades, the city’s population tripled. New communities emerged such as Edgewood, Kirkwood and West End – places that still live on now. Suburban areas developed as well. This led to a massive metropolitan area that now consists of 28 counties and a population of six million people. Even Atlanta’s skyline began to change. Skyscrapers emerged – the Equitable, Flatiron, Empire and Candler buildings. Black communities were formed in Old Fourth Ward and Auburn Avenue, where Martin Luther King Jr. was born. Black-owned businesses rose in a separate business district because of Jim Crow.

AA: Well, following the Civil War, the groups that were coming to Atlanta, there was a pretty wide-open space, so that settlement took place. It was at that point, a lot of the African American communities were relegated to the low-lying areas, and some of the titles for those, like Buttermilk Bottom and some of those indicate the kind of issues that they faced, but there was space available, so you had early on and around the Black colleges and universities that arise on the West Side, you have developments, so there is isolated ones, but then these groups still come together in the city for employment and interactions on when the street carlines come in, you have those same kind of daily contact between whites and Blacks, and that creates some tensions, as well as the fact that there’s a real effort to gain jobs and stuff, so housing, all of these things become kind of areas of tension. And Auburn Avenue becomes a separate Black business district, but it’s not just a business district, it’s a religious center, it’s an entertainment center with places like The Top Hat and The Royal Peacock, and so it becomes an amazing community there. And I think it’s always interesting to remember that this is the community that Dr. Martin Luther King grew up in, so he could see both the power, ingenuity and a future of the African American population. At the same time, he could see the restrictive parts of Jim Crow that kept the community contained within that, but by 1950, Fortune Magazine termed Auburn Avenue the ‘Richest Black Street in the World,’ so it brought a lot of people to the city as well.

SM: Arts and culture began to expand as well.

AA: That’s very interesting because during that time and because of the influx of so many people, you have the growth of a number of things. The area of music for example, the city builds early in the 20th century a new auditorium/armory, and they have a lot of musicians and groups that come to play, but it also becomes a center for two types of music that are very important during this time period: blues and country. And in fact, what few people know is that in the 1920s, Atlanta was kind of like the country capital of the U.S. It was already broadcasting some of the performances on WSB, which was the first radio station in the South. And so, it became kind of recording, before Nashville became important in the 20s too, but these are kind of like the two areas where a lot of that growth was taking place. In addition, people were going to movies. Movies were first viewed in the 1890s, but by the 20th century, you were having theaters that were arising and people were going to. At one point, there were about 30,000 people a day going to the movies, so that’s quite extraordinary. And so, that became a real avenue for growth.

SM: With this influx of ideas and culture, a new belief starts to emerge around this time for the city of Atlanta. Part civic boosterism, part vision, with a healthy dose of priorities and interests, Atlanta begins to set a new vision for itself. It’s based not on what Atlanta is, but what it can be. This belief is known as the Atlanta Spirit.

AA: All cities promote themselves. Atlanta reinvents itself, periodically.

PS: This is around the same time that soccer is starting to be introduced or really take hold in South America and Argentina and Uruguay and Chile, as well where you had a number of British and Scottish businesspeople and educators starting to introduce the sport there.

SM: Meanwhile, soccer was gaining popularity in North America, particularly on the East Coast and in Canada.

PS: The first immigrants to Atlanta were in about the 1880s. That’s around the same time that you started to see some of the semi-pro teams start to begin in and around the larger northern cities in the United States and in Canada. So, in the northeast, in New York, Fall River, Massachusetts, which had a heavy textile industry, and was bringing over a lot of Scottish and Irish immigrants, Chicago and St. Louis as well. But by the 1880s and possibly even earlier, you had teams and leagues being formed in and around the United States, predominantly, as I mentioned in the northeast and Midwest.

SM: As the sport was bubbling up around the U.S., Atlanta and the Southeast remained at the fringes of the soccer world.

PS: Atlanta being, again not a very big city, not a large immigrant base, primarily surrounded by rural areas, it made it very difficult to organize teams. You didn’t have the immigrant base that was going to populate teams and to organize teams. The people who pretty much brought soccer to Atlanta were Scottish immigrants that came to work in the DeKalb County quarrying industry.

SM: These stonecutters were in high demand in Atlanta. Their skills were so needed that they were recruited by quarry workers at Stone Mountain and Lithonia to cut stone for building purposes. They came from Aberdeen, Scotland and began to arrive to Atlanta in the 1880s.

PS: And some of the early reports of these folks was that, again they were men, this was a difficult job. They were known to stand out from the local populous in the fact that they were very much committed to trade unionism. They were highly specialized workers to be able to cut dimensional stone, especially for paving stone that was consistent in size and the quantity that was needed to be cut.

SM: The earliest record of soccer in Atlanta was published in the Constitution newspaper in 1892 ahead of the St. Patrick’s Day parade where these Scottish stonecutters could partake in two of their favorite activities: sports and heavy drinking.

PS: Some Irish immigrants in Atlanta issued a challenge to the Scottish players in Lithonia to play a game of association football. It was well known that the Scotts were playing association football, so that tells me they were pretty much, they came over and started playing I guess, since they got here, since the 1880s.

SM: In the early 1900s, the association consisted of three teams: Atlanta, Lithonia and Stone Mountain. The teams were mainly made up of men from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland.

PS: A lot of the players that played and were organizers for the Lithonia team, they worked in, as I said, the more specialized component of quarrying, which was the paving cutters, the paving block cutters. So, if you’re ever in downtown Atlanta and you see exposed, we often call it Belgian block or cobblestones, if you see exposed stone paving in the road, they were the ones that cut that stone, from the paving city streets. And so, they were the ones that organized, they were playing. And then in 1906, you had a number of Scottish immigrants that were actively recruited by the state of Georgia to come to Georgia and to work in farming or the trades and so forth, and so we had about 500 Scottish immigrants come over in about 1906, and they primarily settled in Atlanta, not DeKalb County, and as I said, they were generally maybe office workers, some of them tradespeople or working in the construction trades, and they were the ones that populated the side that represented Atlanta in the first game in 1908.

JL: Funny how history works. You had a lot of players from Scotland and a lot of players probably from the Aberdeen area, so it’s fascinating that Atlanta United and Aberdeen became partners well down the road.

SM: This spark in DeKalb County was the first evidence of soccer in the city. They would go on to form some of the teams that made up the football league in Atlanta.

AA: What was interesting to me is when I looked into this, I found that in DeKalb County, you had soccer getting its origins even a little bit earlier in the 20th century. As far as we can tell, the first kind of activity of soccer in Atlanta on any kind of organized level was around 1912 when the Atlanta Soccer Football Club was organized. They played in Piedmont Park, they played in some other areas.

SM: This early movement to bring soccer to Atlanta was led by the Harland brothers.

JL: Their work at that time was so important to bring, and I love that the Atlanta Constitution writers would call them the ‘Soccer Rights.’ The Harland brothers brought them together and tried to make a go of it, and then World War I obviously put a stop to it, but when it came back, I think one of the Harland brothers had moved away and found out that things were starting to grow and was really, I think moved by the fact that it was starting to make a comeback. There’s so many people like that throughout Atlanta soccer, whether we’re talking about the 1910s or even, you know, a decade ago from today, there’s a lot of people who have worked hard to grow the game and make it more accessible for others, and I think the Harland brothers were two of the first people in Atlanta to do that.

SM: Back then, the sport was called “soccer football.” And the game was a little different than what we see today.

PS: It was definitely, probably a much rougher game. I mean, you have to keep in mind the idea of a red card and yellow card did not exist. It was a game played with a heavy leather ball on field conditions that would be considered barbaric today, I mean, frozen, it was played in the winter and fall, not in the spring and the summer as it’s typically done in the U.S. now. And it was, at the time primarily populated by white males.

SM: Those interested in soccer started meeting regularly at AG Spalding & Bros store at 74 North Broad St. We might associate Spalding as a basketball brand these days, but it actually served a huge role in the formation of the first soccer league in Atlanta.

PS: And that pretty much became the heart of organized soccer in Atlanta because you had the store sponsor the teams. Typically, they would sponsor or pay for the uniforms that the teams wore, the trophies. They also provided meeting space above the store for the league that eventually formed, and both some of the salespeople that worked for Spalding as well as some of the children of the store owner played on the teams and served as organizers and administrators for the league.

SM: The Atlanta Soccer Football club consisted of four teams. They held their practices at Marist College.

PS: Anybody who’s familiar with downtown, Marist was originally located next to Sacred Heart Catholic Church off of Peachtree Street. Back in the early 20th century, Marist College was a male preparatory school that had very much military bent, so they had a drill ground behind the school, and that is where the Atlanta Soccer Football Club, as it was officially called, would hold its practices during the week. They typically had two practices per week.

SM: With the sport introduced, the new league takes off. Games were held at Piedmont Park. Fort McPherson, the military base located in Atlanta, also fields a team. On New Year’s Day in 1912, the team from Fort McPherson plays the Atlanta team from the Soccer Football Club. Atlanta wins 2-0. This game, some consider, to be the first real competitive soccer game played in Atlanta.

PS: It is interesting. There was the three major dailies: the Atlanta Journal, the Atlanta Constitution, which originally were two separate papers, as well as the Atlanta Georgian, which was the third major paper at the time. And all three of them did cover soccer pretty extensively surprisingly, considering this was very much at the time a college football town and then baseball, the Atlanta Crackers, but soccer did carve its own position out on the sports pages of these papers in the period prior to World War I and then again in the 1920s.

SM: The Constitution covers the league and writes articles on this new sport being played by a few immigrants in Piedmont Park. They describe it as a combination between football and basketball. “The ball is always kicked forward, never backward,” one reporter writes. And the teams were competitive. In November of 1912, the Atlanta team defeated Lithonia 2-1. The match consisted of 70 minutes. After a scoreless first half, Atlanta scored the game-winner. Wrote one spectator, “Each team played like a bunch of demons.” In 1912, the Atlanta soccer players begin to play teams outside the state lines. In February, Atlanta defeats Chattanooga 4-0 in what some consider the first inter-city game ever played in the south. Later that month, the team schedules a home-and-away series with Auburn. Someone writes, “The local boys have gotten right chesty now and are confident of grabbing off both frays.” In 1913, the Soccer Football Club of Atlanta kicks off a new season with four teams. The four teams were Atlanta, Foote & Davies, Stone Mountain and Lithonia. I asked Jason to give us a little scouting report on each of these teams.

JL: So, you had the two teams in the Atlanta area with Foote & Davies, which was a printing company, and I believe one of the Harland brothers was involved in running that team. You had a general Atlanta team. You had Lithonia, and you had Stone Mountain. The teams from Lithonia and Stone Mountain were very good, and I think maybe the Lithonia team was the one that kind of led the way in those first couple of years of this organized league.

SM: Colleges soon began getting more interested in soccer. By that point, a number of colleges in the Northeast started to have soccer programs, but the Southeast didn’t have that yet.

JL: Auburn was one that grabbed on to it early on, and it actually came from the football coach at Auburn at the time. He had a lot of his football players play soccer in the offseason as a way to stay fit. That type of mentality was fascinating to me because when I grew up, you had a lot of football people who didn’t like soccer, and they didn’t want people playing soccer. They didn’t consider it to be something that was beneficial, where back at this time, the very early days of American football, you had a coach who saw the value in it, and you saw other schools try to have, whether it’s a club team, whether it’s a varsity team, whatever you want to call it at that time, but to have organized teams, Auburn was the one that kind of took it the furthest, and they would come and they’d play the Atlanta-based teams, and there was a really strong league in Birmingham at the time, and they’d go and play the teams in Birmingham, so Auburn kind of led the way in that side of things, and it’s actually a shame when you think about the teams from Auburn and the team at Georgia that started and others that you don’t have men’s collegiate soccer today at these institutions and one day maybe, but they were really important in the early stages of just introducing the game in the southeast.

SM: So, while the teams in Atlanta were playing against each other, and going up against different cities, there was one thing all these teams had in common. Their players wanted to spread the word of the game. They would go into grammar schools and teach the game to young players, knowing that they were investing and building up a new generation of soccer players. Mr. William Worrell at Spaldings writes: “To those who know little or nothing of the game, I would say: Watch soccer grow.”

JL: All of these teams were interested in growing it from there. You know, they saw it as a starting point and a needed starting point, but not the end game. They went out and they wanted to teach the schools, and I think they had eight schools playing, and it was really the players on these teams who were then going and teaching the game at the school and then refereeing those games as well, because you didn’t have referees. It’s just fascinating that all this was coming together in 1912, 1913, 1914, and it felt like soccer in Atlanta was really prime to explode and become a really big deal, but then World War I broke out and a lot of the people who were, of course, ex-Pats and living in Atlanta but were from European countries and mostly the UK, they ended up joining the war effort. So, that kind of took away a lot of the leadership that could’ve grown it to the next level.

SM: World War I. The Great War.

PS: So, World War I was essentially a disaster for organizing in Atlanta.

SM: A number of the British-born players enlisted in the military. Many of them joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force, according to Sullivan’s research. A few of them fought the entirety of the war even though the United States didn’t enter until 1917, three years after the war started.

PS: What happened was basically, you just had a draining of some of the most committed players, most committed organizers in Atlanta who left the area to enlist in the war, and so, essentially the adult league collapsed. The grammar school league did hold on for another year, but it fell by the wayside as well.

SM: It was a difficult time, but the sport continues on. In small and different ways.

JL: So, in 1915, soccer was introduced in Athens, and you had a few folks who were, and this kind of happened everywhere around the southeast, you’d have somebody who would try to find like-minded people that had played or had never played to teach the game and create what Atlanta had and what Auburn had. And it feels like Auburn was really the impudence for what was going on at UGA because it was a team you could play and you had the rivalry that had already been formed in the schools on the football field, so this was an area where Georgia could create a soccer team and play Auburn and hopefully beat Auburn, and then grow the rivalry. So, you started to get different classes at UGA play. You had games between the freshmen and the sophomores for example, and the winners were going to win, I guess UGA sweaters offered by the Athletic Association. It never grew like it did at Auburn. It didn’t get much past that, and maybe it’s down to the war effort. Maybe it’s other things, but it just never caught the same wave that it did at Auburn.

SM: In 1918, a soldier from Athens has a letter published in the Athens Weekly Banner. He talks about playing soccer against a French regiment during World War I. 

PS: We have a number of newspaper reports that soccer was played extensively on these military bases. And if you think, too, because of mass mobilization of American men in World War I, you’re getting a number of semiprofessional and professional players from the northeast and Midwest who are coming to Georgia and playing on some of these teams, and we have records of the Brooklyn Celtics, which were a powerhouse team in the New York league. There was a few players from there, some of the players from Chicago in and around Fall River playing on the military bases in Georgia during World War I. Both on the military bases in the United States and then also once the American soldiers went to Europe, that was probably the largest exposure that most native-born American males had to soccer, just seeing it played. The U.S. Army adopted soccer. They saw it as a great conditioning tool because unlike football, it wasn’t as rough, and it was a lot more cardio, so they were running more, so they viewed it as a more acceptable and less dangerous, I guess, sport than football, so it was promoted heavily by the U.S. Army, and during World War I, the YMCA also provided a ton of soccer equipment, balls, cleats, shin guards to the U.S. to also promote the sport.

SM: Once the war is over, the sport is revived in 1921. The Atlanta Soccer Football Club holds their first meeting at the Spalding store in January. It’s the first meeting since 1914. In February, games start back up. The Atlanta Soccer Club plays the Cotton Athletic Club, a group composed of former Liverpool men who now work in the cotton industry. It’s the first match played in Atlanta in several years. One player named R.N. Hall, who previously played for Aston Villa, joins the Atlanta team. Fort McPherson dives back into it as well.

PS: During the 1920s, you had reemergence of a Lithonia team, the Atlanta Soccer Football Club, so those are the two stalwart teams. You also had the introduction of the Fort McPherson team, the team composed of prisoners at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, so they would go on the site of the federal penitentiary and play that team as well.

SM: The media helps pick up the pace. In December 1921, the Athens Banner Herald publishes a feature on the growing popularity of soccer in England. “Soccer Gets Started In Atlanta” is the headline of one article in the Atlanta Constitution. The writer, Cliff Wheatly, describes soccer as “a sort of combination of American football, hockey, shinny-on-your-own-side, and basketball.” He continues, “It is a game that will appeal to all of us.”

JL: In 1921, one of the players and the new, second edition of the Atlanta Georgia Soccer League was G.M. Povoa, and I don’t believe I’ve ever found what his full name was, and he was one of the first non-British players to be noticed. He played for the Atlanta team, was from Brazil and was a star halfback according to reports in the Atlanta Constitution at the time. And he actually got involved in teaching the game to Georgia Tech students. And again, you get back to the whole idea of colleges starting teams, and Auburn was the one they all wanted to go play. Georgia Tech had the same mentality. Povoa, from Brazil, learned the game there, came to Atlanta, and I think he wanted to play on the American Football team as well, but for some reason, that didn’t happen, so he threw himself onto the soccer side of things and brought a different type of personality to the game that you just didn’t have from the Brits that were involved in playing at that time.

SM: Someone describes Povoa’s playing style, “It is something new for the usual football crowd to see a man jump three feet in the air, whirl and send the ball scooting down the field forty or fifty yards while still in the air.”

JL: I’m sure it was really unique, not just on the soccer field in Atlanta, but just in Atlanta in general because this would've been, I don’t think that Povoa was the first Brazilian to come to Atlanta, but there weren’t a whole lot of Brazilians in Atlanta at that time, so it’s fascinating to me that a Brazilian found his way to into this very British-dominated Atlanta soccer scene and created a big name for himself.

SM: The game continues to grow during the 1920s.

JL: So, in 1925, you had another push at the University of Georgia to try to get something consistent happening with soccer, and this time it was led by UGA ROTC students. They started to play games against one another with the idea of forming a team to represent the university to play the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville. And Riverside came up a lot as a team that would play some of the Atlanta area teams, but also would play Auburn and other colleges that had started teams. There was soccer played on Herty Field on the campus at UGA on February of 1925, and that’s a big deal and it’s something that I’ve always kind of wondered in the Atlanta scene if you had soccer played at all or maybe rarely on places like Grant Field at Georgia Tech or at the Ponce de Leon ballpark where the Atlanta Crackers, a minor league baseball team, played. They played at Piedmont Park, but when you started to get soccer into, not more respected venues, but maybe venues associated with other sports, I think that shows that growth is starting to come together.

SM: In 1927, physical education classes at the University of Georgia begin teaching soccer skills and rules to women. There’s talk of Mercer University adding a varsity soccer team.

JL: It’s fascinating that you had Georgia trying to do this. You had the Riverside team. You had Auburn doing their thing. Mercer started to create a team as well, and they had some South American players down in Macon, Artemio Montoya of Peru and James Fowler of Argentina, they were expected to be key players on a team from Mercer and they were set to play games against the University of Florida, so you had all these things happening in the mid-20s, trying to bubble up and grow the game.

SM: The growing game is forced to come to a halt just as it's learning to crawl in Atlanta. The stock market crash of 1929 hits the state of Georgia hard.

AA: Well, the city was wholly unprepared for that economic emergency. Had great difficulty in developing support and relief for its population, so there was widespread unemployment, widespread hunger, and in fact, the city ranked last among similar sized cities in 1930 in terms of what it was expending for the population in terms of welfare and relief.

PS: Basically, the collapse of the local organized league in Atlanta mirrored what was happening at the national level, with regard to soccer. The 1920s has often been called kind of the early Golden Age of American soccer. We didn’t really hit the heights of it. We hit the dark ages after that, that we really didn’t begin to come out of it until the North American Soccer League in the 1970s when that started to gain traction. But you had essentially the Great Depression coincide with the collapse of the American Soccer League in the first soccer war between some of the governing bodies of professional teams as well as the United States Soccer Federation. So, you had the collapse of the American Soccer League, then you had basically the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and that’s essentially when we see the end of soccer in Atlanta.

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The 2024 home opener is here!

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