Atlanta’s professional soccer team plays its first ever playoff game tonight against the Columbus Crew at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Atlanta United FC has enjoyed a stellar inaugural season, performing well on the field but even better in the stands.
The team has set several attendance records for Major League Soccer in a city without long-standing ties to the sport.
Atlanta United, founded by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, pre-sold more than 30,000 season tickets last year.
Greg Morris attended a game this summer. It was only his second time at a soccer match, but he quickly realized how much he enjoyed the sport.
“It’s funny because as an American, i looked at soccer as a very boring sport,” Morris said. “I was football, baseball, basketball , but this is probably the most exciting sport that there is.”
But Atlanta’s team isn’t just impressing new soccer followers.
Javier Ramos works for Delta and grew up with the sport in Puerto Rico. But now, he pledges his support to Atlanta United.
He says metro Atlanta’s diversity has helped build the team’s fanbase.
“I think it’s because of the merge we have here of this city of different cultures and people from different cultures, especially Latin America,” Ramos says.
“Little by little, soccer has been gaining ground.”
Diversity is key for Atlanta’s soccer club. All three of its top stars hail from South America.
Miguel Almirón, 23, of Paraguay, Héctor Villalba, 23, of Argentina, and Josef Martínez, 24, of Venezuela are all under 25 years old and entering the prime of their careers.
Team president Darren Eales says because Atlanta is home to transplants from across the world, creating a new team gives those fans a chance to connect with the city.
“People don’t carry the baggage of another club,” Eales says. "They might come from Philadelphia and be an Eagles fan in football, but they’re not a soccer fan for Philadelphia.
I think that Atlanta United has become Atlanta’s team for every transplant that calls the city home.”
That philosophy has led to a groundswell of support for Atlanta United.
But smaller soccer programs in the region are also seeing growth.
Jon Nelson co-hosts the "Soccer Down Here" podcast, a show that covers the sport across the South.
He says that soccer teams in places like Birmingham, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis, seeing spikes in their teams' attendance as of late.
And he credits that increase to the success of Atlanta United.
The way Nelson sees it, Atlanta serves as an anchor for soccer in the region. Clubs in lower divisions can use the popularity of United to showcase the sport locally.
“If you can put a good product on the table and represent your city well, regardless of where you are, (you) can emphasize to everyone that ‘hey, we can to it our town too’ and be just as successful on our level.”
Atlanta’s hot start is a promising sign for soccer’s growth in the South.
But as Nelson, and other soccer enthusiasts will tell you, sustained success over the next few seasons will really prove if the sport is a trend or a permanent attraction.
And since the U.S. Men’s National team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, viewers will miss out on a chance to see America play on soccer’s grandest stage.
But Atlanta is already being recognized for it’s new connection to soccer.
The city is one of 41 potential locations in North America’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup.
Just this week, Atlanta was also chosen to host the 2018 MLS All-Star Game.
And regardless of Atlanta’s future prospects for international soccer, the local team is looking to generate even more attention in the upcoming MLS playoffs.
The first round match kicks off tonight at 7 PM at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Highlights of Atlanta's home win over the New England Revolution: