I grew up with soccer the way most American kids grow up with baseball. My dad played semi-professionally in the Caribbean. He coached my brother, who played right up until high school. I wasn’t much of a joiner and was way more into books than balls, but I went along to practice with them. I knew the game, knew how to dribble and lob the ball off the top of my laces way downfield. I’d play defense and goalie against my brother in our driveway to help him practice. We watched the World Cup and UEFA Championship as a family and went to international friendlies when they were in New York. I grew up loving soccer.
I knew even before moving to Atlanta three and a half years ago that the city was getting an MLS expansion club. It was announced while I was still planning and packing and I took it as a good omen for my future in the city. I knew, even before the club had a name or jerseys or players, that this would be my team. I couldn’t give up baseball and undying love for the Yankees. I couldn’t care less about football or basketball, having given up the sport around the time MJ retired for good. But soccer…this, I could give my heart to.
At the time, I didn’t know about Atlanta’s reputation for being a “bad” sports town. I didn’t know how its teams got less respect than Rodney Dangerfield or how their lasting legacy was disappointing fans year after year. I didn’t know that even MLS was doubtful that soccer could succeed in the South. I just knew that this was the thing I could go all in on in my adopted hometown.
I eagerly followed player acquisition news, the jersey reveal and schedule announcement. But even I didn’t expect a whole lot from the team’s performance. I’d been raised on international soccer, after all. The best of the best. And MLS had always seemed a bit plodding and lackluster in comparison. Still, this was going to be my team, for better or worse.
This past Thanksgiving, Forrest and I regaled my brother with stories of how our team, Atlanta United, had become the best in the league in just two short years. But importantly, they’d become the best that American soccer could offer. I knew he and my mom were still skeptical about my move to a second-rate city like Atlanta. Sure, the cost of living was lower, it was beautiful and relaxed with a thriving culture of food, music, and even fashion. But it wasn’t New York and it never would be. Here though, was something I could offer that surpassed our hometown, and in a language we all idolized: soccer.
I told my brother about the star players and coach, the diehard support from rowdy crowds who sang and chanted through all ninety minutes of the game, the record-setting attendance that rivaled the best in Europe. I convinced him to watch an upcoming playoff game. Against New York, of course.
He texted me during that game, saying that he’d never expected something so big and crazy from American soccer. He said it was like a “real” European soccer match. Like the kind he woke up early on Saturday mornings to watch, or very occasionally got to see in person. I told him that the championship a few weeks later would be even crazier, like a World Cup match, and that next season he should visit my city and we’d take him to a game.
I don’t know if he watched the championship game this past Saturday night, but Forrest and I sure did. I knit to help with my anxiety, while Forrest chewed his nails. We both yelled at the TV, scaring our dog. I held my breath as the minutes ticked down, with Atlanta in the lead, praying away the collapse that would be so typical of Georgia teams. And then it was over. Atlanta United won. My team had won. The first championship for the city in twenty-three years. Won by a team that’s even newer to Atlanta than I am. I almost cried.