ATLANTA, Ga. — Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field is the rare Atlanta team sports venue to survive our town’s natural need to either relocate or demolish every couple decades or so, as if stadiums are power plants in SimCity. It’s been used continuously for Georgia Tech football since 1905, or about 4.5 Georgia Dome lifetimes, making it the oldest major American football stadium.
Sunday afternoon, monster trucks officially shut down the Dome, a giant egg carton built by the state’s convention center and painted — like all 1990s things — teal. And like the Atlanta Falcons who’d eventually put their colors on the Dome, it was never destined to survive much of the year 2017.
Hours later, Atlanta United made their home debut in front of 55,297 at the impressively asymmetrical Bobby Dodd, which has been home to almost every championship the city’s teams have ever won. Throughout the piecemeal stadium, you can see trees, traffic, the overrated Varsity, and the Coca-Cola tower; add in the Yellow Jacket Marching Band playing Jeezy’s “Put On” on a fall Saturday, and you’ve got about a third of your Atlanta tourist checklist filled out right there.
The new MLS team has a forever home already picked out, until that one’s demolished in 2029 or so: the inbound Mercedes Benz Stadium, the origami orifice already jutting into the horizon a few miles away. It looks like an egg laid by a Michael Bay Transformer. I can’t believe it’s real.
But Sunday, the brand-new team scored its first-ever goal in the 25th minute against the New York Red Bulls, daring the thousands in red or black or gold to believe all over again in an Atlanta team that wears red or black or gold.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 6, 2017
Bobby Dodd was full. That rarely happens on fall Saturdays unless Clemson, Georgia, or a ranked opponent is in town (“Haven’t seen this much red and black in here since every other November,” goes the joke all day Sunday), meaning the stadium is even more rarely this unified.
So Atlanta midfielder Yamil Asad’s goal against a team named after an Austrian energy drink: without question among the loudest moments in this field’s 113 years. Imagine explaining this to a 147-year-old John Heisman. Even the defiant “A-T-L” chants after New York goals were loud. (One homophobic chant that was far too loud at a couple points marred the evening, though.)
The baby United rank No. 2 in MLS in season ticket sales, with their expansion-record 30,000 (“far beyond 30,000,” owner Arthur Blank said before the game) behind only the defending champion Seattle Sounders. Blank said that MLS commissioner Don Garber had texted him three times throughout the week, unable to believe the 55,000 number that the United were expecting. At halftime, a delighted Garber looked forward to international coverage of Atlanta’s crowd. He noted how ferociously fast the United had played in their debut half and wondered whether that could continue.
It didn’t. NYRB keeper Luis Robles was visibly flustered at the end of the first and beginning of the second, as his side looked like the expansion team for most of the night. But a deluge of debatable fouls, some shaky defense, and an own goal by backup Anton Walkes made clear by the end which team had farther to go.
How Atlanta was it, though? Well, Yung Joc wielded a hammer, Monica sang the anthem, the inaugural tifo was a phoenix (the city was burned down at one point, you might recall), and the pregame countdown included a reference to Andre 3000’s legendary speech at the 1995 Source Awards.
Yung Joc hammering the golden spike. pic.twitter.com/NVLGkoVHv8
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) March 6, 2017
How Georgia was it? Well, local hero Goldberg’s upcoming WWE title match was the hottest topic in the pregame media scrum, tailgaters had cornhole and truck bed grills and whatnot, and a “fuck New Jersey” chant (in honor of the Red Bulls’ actual address) broke out in the rowdy area Tech uses for its student section. When Carlos Carmona received Atlanta’s first-ever red card, I half expected Lex Luger to crash the pitch in retaliation.
Were there any moments that might’ve been the weirdest juxtapositions of Atlanta and Georgia you’ve ever seen? One, actually, when a man who might’ve been dressed as a long-defected Confederate was dancing to Jeezy. He lost the sidewalk dance battle, to a dad from Valdosta who twerked in jeans on a lightpole next to a man on stilts.
How Atlanta sports was it? Well, the home team had a lead until 14 minutes were left on the clock, and then six minutes later, the road team was winning, and then everyone got so mad at the refs that about a half-dozen people threw garbage on the field. So, it was exactly like every other sporting event that’s ever happened here, but newer and with more chanting and hugging.
“And I wouldn’t have it any other way” is a thing people say about things they’d definitely have another way, but the United’s deflating loss in front of a packed house was still a proof of concept.
Atlanta is a lot of towns, old and new and constantly replacing itself, and we’ve long insisted — because of the region’s ever-blooming diversity, the in-town’s need for something cooler to replace the slightly relocating Braves, a long history of support for minor league and international soccer, and Blank’s relentless eye for the future — that it’s a soccer town, as well. That part couldn’t be more emphatically official now.