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The growth of soccer in the Peach State

Illustration by Devin Phillips

In 2017 Atlanta United took Major League Soccer by storm with its record breaking crowds, new stadium and South American style of play. While many saw this support of a soccer team in Georgia as a shock, it has been a long time in the making. The success of Atlanta United highlighted the growth of the soccer in the state and how it can prosper in the future.

Atlanta United radio commentator Jason Longshore was born in the 80’s, a time where soccer had little to no following, not just in Georgia but in the United States.

“Honestly, because [Atlanta United] made it cool, and it was big especially for youth viewing the games,” Longshore said.

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Longshore grew up at a time where the only soccer in the state was the Atlanta Chiefs. Created in 1967, they were members of the National Premier Soccer League and North American Soccer League. The Chiefs were the first soccer team in Georgia and also owned by the Braves. However, the team went through many name changes such as the Atlanta Attack, Atlanta Ruckus, back to Chiefs, then finally to Silverbacks. While the teams were in lower leagues it allowed Georgians greater access to professional soccer. In 2013, fans packed Silverback Stadium with 7,500 fans, nearly overflowing the stadium with a record-setting attendance in the NASL. More local teams were formed and youth participation started to steadily increase. These local teams were formed all over the state such as the the AFC Lightning in Peachtree, Alpharetta Ambush and Athens United, which were formed after the Atlanta Chiefs.

However, for soccer to grow in Georgia it faces an uphill battle as other sports such as football, basketball and baseball are the dominant sports with the current youth. Longshore remains optimistic about soccer’s chance to grab the youth’s attention.

“Baseball as fanbase is struggling to attract a young base and [in] football the numbers [are] declining with parents worried about concussions,” Longshore said.

The closest comparison Longshore used for soccer’s popularity was basketball, which is also pushed by younger fans. He stated how big NBA stars such as LeBron James are often socializing with huge stars such as Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar Jr. and many others. This is huge for the growth of soccer as the most popular athletes in the country such as James associating themselves with soccer gets more youth interested in the sport.

Another reason for the soccer popularity boom is due to Atlanta being a natural hub and unofficial capital of the south. Atlanta hosts a variety of sporting events, and soccer is no longer the exception as it hosted the 2018 MLS All-Star Game. The Atlanta Braves have fans throughout the southeast and other regions of the country. For soccer to grow in Georgia, it must be a magnet for talent from other southern states to come play.

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”Now we have [Atlanta] United fans all over the south we get people listening in from South Carolina, Alabama, Macon and Columbus,” Longshore said.

Just like the Braves have embraced “Braves Country” soccer fans in the south are drawn to Georgia as the capital of soccer in the South. One of Atlanta United’s goals was to partner up with Atlanta Public Schools near the West End. This was to ensure that the sport is accessible to inner city youth.

The major issue that has hindered soccer’s growth in Georgia, and in the country, is the lack of access for children in the inner cities. The United States has a “pay to play” system where people of low income areas are financially barred from competing unlike those in suburban communities.

Soccer in the Streets was established to give more access to the sport to children in the inner city. One of the board members, Sanjay Patel, makes it his missions to grow the game in the state. Sanjay, who grew up in the United Kingdom was taken back by how discriminated the sport was in the US.

“When I came here [to the United States] I was surprised how segregated it was, in that it was a very white middle-class sport,” Sanjay said.

One of the goals for Sanjay and Soccer in the Streets is “to encourage more grassroots teams like how kids form local basketball teams we want kids to form local soccer teams.

Soccer in Streets also created Station Soccer, a program to create soccer fields near MARTA stations. There are currently soccer fields at the West End station and Five Points station, the busiest MARTA stop.

“One of the biggest issues facing kids in the city from playing is transportation and cost… our soccer fields are free and are open to everyone,” Sanjay said.

When he came to Georgia in 2010 there was little excitement about the game with exception of the suburban areas. However, as there was more exposure in the city, more people began to take interest in the sport.

Georgia Soccer, the authorized state youth and adult soccer association established in 1968 has seen a major growth in the game. The Signal sat down with Jacob Daniel, director of coaching at Georgia Soccer. Daniel began his tenure at Georgia Soccer in 1993, and in his early years there wasn’t much interest from residents.

The director said he saw tremendous growth as he saw youth signing numbers skyrocket.

“We saw our numbers go from 35,000 to 90,000 currently,” Daniels said.

Soccer has become more intriguing and active in parts of Georgia that soccer would’ve never touched twenty years ago.

“We had maybe had one or two paid coaches when I started. Now we have hundreds of paid coaches and administrators,” Daniels said.

While soccer may not be at the same level of popularity in football in Georgia, the growth of the game is undeniable. The traction is shown with soccer in the state growing from the Atlanta Chiefs in the 1960s to Atlanta United, the champions of MLS.Organizations such as Soccer in the Streets and Georgia continue to break down socioeconomic baring those in the inner city from playing the game competitively.

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