Atlanta United are excited about their new home and postseason prospects
Atlanta United plays its first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday and, in this guest column, club captain Michael Parkhurst explains why the first-year club is so optimistic about its new home and playoff chances.
Walking into our new Mercedes-Benz Stadium home, it was impossible not to look up. The stadium is simply jaw dropping; an amazing site sure to produce some extraordinary experiences for thousands and, eventually, millions of fans.
Two weeks ago we had our first taste of the new digs during an open training session for season-ticket holders. It was incredible. There was an enthusiastic energy abuzz everywhere and within everyone.
After checking out our new spacious locker room, which includes a turf soccer tennis room among other niceties, we were greeted by 15,000-20,000 fans. And the first thing we all noticed was how loud MBS will be when there are 45,000-plus fans there with the roof closed. It will surely take the game-day atmosphere in MLS to a new level.
It was the latest experience in my MLS career that made me think back to how far things have come and how different the league is today. I remember playing games in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium as a rookie, in front of 5,000 fans. There was also Soldier Field in Chicago, Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, INVESCO Field in Colorado and Giants Stadium in New Jersey.
None of those football-first fields were designed with soccer in mind and the atmosphere and game-day environment was subpar. Flash forward 12 years and we get the opportunity to play in many soccer-specific stadiums as well as a venue like MBS, which was created to cater to both soccer and football.
It will be a shared stadium with the Atlanta Falcons, but that setup hasn't taken away from the atmosphere in Seattle and certainly our home games will be an amazing and an electric environment to play in. Tune in on Sunday against Dallas to witness it for yourself!
We will be most thankful for that atmosphere and support during September when we have multiple home games each week. Our schedule has been one of the strangest I've ever experienced, with a lot of away matches to start, two different periods of back-to-back weekends when we didn't play at all, then a slew of games within a five-week period.
All things considered, we are happy to be in playoff contention and believe we are in a good position to climb the table further if we can take advantage at home. With the games coming in such close succession, a good start on Sunday could provide momentum and such a run could propel us into the postseason.
Only three expansion teams have reached the playoffs in their opening season but that has been our ambition from day one. We have always said that we have higher goals and standards than an ordinary expansion team and would never use the excuse of this being our first year together.
As with any team there have been highs and lows throughout the season. The best moments have mostly centered around our amazing fan base and the incredible support they give us at each home game; I'll never forget leading the team out against the New York Red Bulls in March in front of a raucous and sold-out Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Likewise, our first win the following week -- 6-1 at Minnesota -- was unforgettable as it occurred in the snowiest conditions of my career. The unveiling of our state-of-the-art training grounds, a five-game win streak at home and an MLS All-Star appearance to represent my new club have been among the other highlights.
But like every club, save maybe Toronto this year, we have gone through our trying times. Every season brings at least one stretch that tests team spirit and the resiliency of the group; it is almost impossible to avoid that period where your play dips and results don't go your way.
The non-playoff teams either never find a way back from their ruts or are too slow to do so, but the successful ones are those that are able to recover quickly and come out stronger. For example, Seattle struggled last summer before turning things around and winning a championship.
Expansion teams usually experience tough times more often and find it hard to rediscover their best form, be it due to lack of experience, talent or team chemistry issues. The parity within the league is difficult for newcomers to understand and appreciate. How is it possible for a team to win 4-0 one week and lose to an "inferior" team the next?
Things like this are what makes having MLS experience important within a locker room. Results can be unpredictable and the faster teams can learn, adjust, improve and move on, the better their odds for success. Fortunately for us, we have proven able to do such things and bounce back from small periods of poor results or play. And that's why we still have a chance to achieve our playoff goal.
I hope we get the chance to reward our fans with a postseason appearance because their welcome to us as players new to Atlanta has been incredible. Everywhere we go people recognize us and extend their gratitude and it's different to some past experiences where I could largely go unnoticed. For example, my first autograph appearance was a weekday night at a bar/restaurant outside the city, three or four months into the season.
It was a standard, two-hour time frame in which, based on past experience, I expected to sign about 30 autographs in the first half hour and then just get to know the marketing employee working with me, while signing maybe 20 more during the next 90 minutes. Well, I underestimated the ATL: Two straight hours of signing and picture taking!
It was a welcome change and one that illustrated why the soccer experience here is a bit different and has been so much fun from the start. Now, with the support of a city behind us, our talented roster has a tremendous opportunity to reach new highs and keep making history.
Follow Michael Parkhurst on Twitter @MFparkhurst.