Bobby Dodd Stadium was integral in establishing Atlanta United traditions
When it became clear that construction delays were going to push the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium toward the back half of 2017, Atlanta United staffers took to calling their search for a temporary home "Project Lemonade."
Instead of opening their inaugural Major League Soccer campaign inside the $1.6 billion palace they were to share with the NFL's Falcons, suddenly Atlanta United were forced to scramble for a solution that wouldn't jeopardize their first and best chance at establishing a local fan base.
"We originally called it 'Project Lemonade,' " club president Darren Eales told ESPN FC in a recent phone interview. "How do we take these lemons and turn them into lemonade?"
Little did they know that the batch they eventually whipped up would prove to be such a success that some supporters mused whether they wouldn't be better off just staying where they were.
Most of those fears were allayed the moment fans got their first look inside Mercedes-Benz, with its glowing halo scoreboard and soaring roof that traps in sound. Atlanta broke the single-game MLS attendance record last Saturday afternoon, when 70,425 packed inside the new building to watch United tie 3-3 with Orlando City.
Ahead of Wednesday night's home showdown with the LA Galaxy (7 p.m. EST on ESPN2/WatchESPN) in what is expected to be another raucous atmosphere, it's worth taking one last glimpse at United's time at Bobby Dodd Stadium which, as brief as it was, became a tenure that'll leave a lasting imprint on the club.
Temporary stadia have a mostly inglorious history in MLS.
Think of Buck Shaw Stadium on the campus of Santa Clara University, where the San Jose Earthquakes played their home games in 2008-14 until Avaya Stadium was finally completed, or Yankee Stadium's comically narrow pitch that will host New York City FC games for as long as it takes to complete their quixotic quest for their own home.
As has often has been the case this season, fellow expansion team Minnesota United's experience at TCF Bank Stadium -- with most of their home matches played in front of chunks of empty maroon-and-yellow, Golden-Gophers-themed seats -- has stood in marked contrast to Atlanta's.
With its healthy season-ticket base and back-room infrastructure, Atlanta would have succeeded on some level no matter where it played. It's not as though Bobby Dodd was the result of a careful, prolonged search for a fill-in -- it was merely the only venue close to downtown whose capacity was big enough to fit all of their prospective ticket holders.
There were cons, of course, not least of which was the stadium's age, having opened more than a century ago in 1913. The concourses are narrow, and concessions relatively sparse.
But something clearly clicked.
"The nature of the stadium -- and I'm trying to think of the polite way to put it -- it created an atmosphere because of its historical nature," Eales said.
Bobby Dodd's Spartan aesthetic had some unintended benefits: Because the stadium is mostly bleacher seating, fans took to standing from start to finish, keeping them loud and engaged in the game. Bobby Dodd inspired a handful of odes to its quirky charms, most notably titled "An MLS Experience Unlike Any Other," and games broadcast from there became must-see TV for their noise levels alone.
Atlanta sold out all nine of its games at the stadium, from the cacophonous 2-1 loss to New York in the opener all the way through the muggy summer, and it even helped give birth to a handful of United traditions that have been carried over to the Benz.
Before the team's home match against Houston on May 20, Bobby Dodd's wonky sound system gave out partway through the national anthem and fans piped up to sing the rest of the song. Now, at the new stadium, singers stand directly in front of the supporters' section to encourage them to participate. And on Wednesday before the Galaxy game, the club is even bringing back Chinua Hawk, the artist who was on the mic when it malfunctioned back in the spring.
"We have a limited history," Eales said. "When something like that happened, we wanted to use that with the new stadium."
Eales & Co. already knew they wanted to pay homage to the region's college football tradition whenever possible, and Bobby Dodd allowed them to experiment. They gave fans the option to greet the players as they walked off the team bus into the stadium, an instant hit. A vibrant tailgating scene quickly sprung up too, inspiring the team to open a fan zone on the site of the Georgia Dome once the old building is demolished later this year.
The club actually bought out a pair of field-level suites for each of the remaining United games to build a stand for players to join fans for the "Golden Spike" post-match ceremony.
"We would have loved to have started in Mercedes-Benz," Eales said. "But in retrospect, looking back now -- and the credit is 100 percent to our fans, because it wasn't an ideal situation, but they made it into the most wonderful nine games there.
"I think there will always be that moment, in 10 years, when people talk about those handful of games at Bobby Dodd as a badge of honor for all of us having gone through that together."
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.