The Santos Football Club of Brazil entered the city of Atlanta along with ‘The King of Football,’ Pelé on Aug. 28, 1968. In front of 26,713 spectators at the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the largest crowd ever at a soccer game in Atlanta, Pelé dazzled the crowd, scoring three goals and barely missing a fourth en route to a 6-2 victory of the city’s professional team, the Atlanta Chiefs.
Pelé, who was the world’s highest-paid athlete at the time, had become an integral role player to the growth of soccer in Atlanta. Atlanta’s progression as a soccer powerhouse would eventually deteriorate just as fast as it began to flourish.
Today, the Atlanta Silverbacks, a revitalized minor league team of the North American Soccer League (NASL), are the last remaining fragments of a city that used to be a soccer Mecca. Atlanta is the largest television market without a Major League Soccer (MLS) team and the southeast is the only part of the country without a single MLS franchise.
“I believe that there is now a lot of potential here, Atlanta is a massive hub for everything,” said Joe Nasco, goalkeeper for the Silverbacks. “Why wouldn’t a MLS team look to come here to possibly start a team?”
Soccer has now become one of the top extracurricular activities amongst youth programs in the city’s suburbs, and Atlanta has a long and storied history of the game that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.
Atlanta can trace its soccer roots as far back as 1912 when amateur players gathered at Piedmont Park to play. Soon leagues began to develop during the 1920s and 1930s and Emory University became the first school in the state to form a collegiate soccer program in 1958.
The dynamics of soccer in Atlanta would soon change drastically after the 1966 World Cup in England. The success of the popular event spurred international interest in the sport, causing the launch of the NASL in 1967.
Dick Cecil, who had acquired a baseball team for Atlanta the year before from Milwaukee (the Atlanta Braves) also invested in the country’s new venture and purchased professional soccer for the city.
The Atlanta Chiefs would play their first season in 1967 under head coach Phil Woosnam, who established a core roster of recruits from overseas. The Chiefs won the NASL’s inaugural league title and Atlanta’s first professional sports championship in 1968, catapulting the game of soccer citywide.
The Chiefs were able to finish as runners up to the NASL title in 1971 before being sold to the owners of the Atlanta Hawks in 1973. The franchise would change its name to the Atlanta Apollos and played at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The NASL was starting to struggle in the early 1970s, as 10 teams in the league folded. The Atlanta was one such victim, dismantling a growing soccer empire in 1972.
Atlanta entrepreneur Ted Turner tried to revitalize soccer in Atlanta in 1979 when he obtained ownership of the Colorado Caribous, another NASL franchise, and moved them to Atlanta, renaming the team the Chiefs. The franchise’s second stint only lasted from 1979-1981 when it folded completely.
Soccer was at a standstill in Atlanta until the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. More than 1.8 million people were in attendance for the men’s and women’s soccer events during the summer games. Even though the preliminary matches before the medal rounds took place throughout the Southeast, all eyes of the soccer world were glued to Sanford Stadium at the University of Georgia. It was there that Nigeria won the men’s gold medal and the U.S. women’s team defeated China for the gold.
The 1996 Olympics was the first year women’s soccer was played as an Olympic medal sport. The U.S. gold medal game against China drew 76,481 spectators, a record number for people in attendance for a women-only sports event in the United States, re-announcing Atlanta’s presence in the soccer world.
The American excitement over women’s soccer eventually led to the formation of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) in 2001. The city would receive its first professional soccer team in 20 years, the Atlanta Beat. The Beat were fairly successful, making it to the finals of the league championship twice. Atlanta was also home to the WUSA’s headquarters.
Unfortunately after financial restructuring in three seasons, the league would suffer a collapse in 2003.
The Atlanta Beat would return in 2009 as members of a newly formed Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league. The Beat played their games at Kennesaw State University Soccer Stadium until another league suspension in 2012.
Jahbari Willis, a native of Stone Mountain and forward for the Atlanta Silverbacks, grew up playing in what he called a ‘melting pot’ of players who became close knit due to the small nucleus of soccer in the area.
“It was extremely competitive growing up and there were fewer leagues,” said Willis. “Now you’re seeing a bunch of teams coming from different places and they’re all filled with kids hungry to play, so I think the game has definitely grown during my time period.”
The MLS is currently comprised of 19 teams, 16 in the U.S. and 3 in Canada. The growth of youth soccer in and around the city could lead to Atlanta becoming team number 20.
“The amount of people that are involved in soccer in Georgia alone is unbelievable and I know that the people would come out and support a professional soccer team,” assistant coach Franklin McIntosh told the Daily World. “The stadium we have here, we’re selling it out basically every week and a great indicator will be this summer with the Gold Cup because the quarterfinals are here in Georgia.
“I think if we have a good showing as far as attendance for those games, which will go a long way into maybe influencing some people’s decisions into bringing a team here.”
The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Gold Cup is a tournament held every two years to determine the regional soccer champion of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The quarterfinals will be held in Atlanta in the Georgia Dome July 20.
“I think to Atlanta, the Silverbacks are a sign of professional soccer growing and the popularity of soccer in Atlanta not only, but the U.S.,” said Willis. “It’s a homing beacon, every year there is growth and expansion and with this group we have now, this is basically our year to say that Atlanta soccer is ready to be a part of the big sports world.”
The Silverbacks, who won their season opener last Saturday, will host their second home game of the season against the Minnesota United Saturday, Apr 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Atlanta Silverbacks Park in Chamblee.