(Photo: John David Mercer, USAT)
ATLANTA (AP) — The MLS single-game attendance record belongs to a first-year expansion club.
Atlanta United’s crowd of 70,425 Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium had everyone buzzing about the new game in town.
“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.”
Breaking the MLS mark of 69,225 set at the Rose Bowl by the Los Angeles Galaxy in 1996, Atlanta hosted the most attended U.S. soccer game since the New York Cosmos sold over 77,000 tickets for a North American Soccer League playoff game at Giants Stadium in 1977.
United drew over 150,000 fans to its first three games this week at the new $1.5 million stadium, which will host another sellout Sunday night when the Atlanta Falcons play the Green Bay Packers.
Falcons and United owner Arthur Blank told Garber that soccer would be a big draw in Atlanta, a city known mostly for its affinity for college football, the Falcons and Braves. Garber took a wait-and-see approach, but he started being convinced when United played before sellout crowds earlier this year at Georgia Tech while Mercedes-Benz had construction delays.
“We’ve been in the soccer business for a long time and we’re continuing to have experiences like this that are defying everyone’s expectations and my expectations,” Garber said. “When I look at all this, I want to remind myself to suck it in, take a deep breath and remember that this is a beginning for even greater things to happen in our league.”
For Jonathan Rivera, who grew up in Spain and moved to Atlanta 20 years ago, United’s 3-3 draw with Orlando City took no luster off the big day.
Rivera, 38, was hoarse from yelling in the supporters’ section. He arrived to tailgate at 9 a.m., walked into the stadium about an hour before the match and spent the first half bouncing around on the front row of the lower level.
“This is one of the best things to happen to Atlanta,” he said. “I’ve been here for a long time and I plan to be here for a long time. I’ve got season tickets for the Falcons, but you never see people happy like this. If the Falcons don’t win tomorrow, you won’t see very many people smiling.”
Part of Saturday’s appeal was getting a chance for a first-time experience at the stadium — even if that meant sitting in the top row of the upper level.
Regina Montgomery, 58, of Atlanta, doesn’t describe herself as a soccer fan, but she climbed 56 steps up to her corner perch in section 334 so she could take in the atmosphere from the nose bleeds. She’s been a Falcons season-ticket holder for 16 years and will be much closer to the action in section 105 on Sunday.
“I certainly won’t be up here,” she said. “But even in these seats you really can see pretty well. The whole field’s right here in front of you. You feel pretty close even though you’re not.”
Aaron Popkin, 53, grew up in Atlanta as a Braves and Falcons fan and never gave soccer much thought until his four boys started playing. The family persuaded him to buy United season tickets, and they watched the match from section 232.
“If you remember, back the first time when they tried the MLS, it didn’t work,” Popkin said. “This time it just works. I think we have more kids growing up not playing football and, unfortunately, not playing baseball, which I love. But they all can play soccer.”
His son, Reece, 12, was having the time of his life.
“I just like the action of it,” he said. “There’s no stopping. Everything just keeps going.”
Carolina Rollins, 27, didn’t know what to expect when she and her friend Laura Cunningham headed downtown for the match. Now she’s sold.
“Being born and raised here, I’m very avid Braves and Falcons fan, but now it’s so exciting for the Atlanta United to be in town,” she said. “I’m more of an American football fan, but the atmosphere here is great.”
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