Atlanta Professional Soccer: Who Knew?

Sports historians date a form of the game of soccer, or football as the rest of the world calls it, to China about 2,000 years ago.  The first recorded sighting of the game in Atlanta came in 1912 when amateur players gathered at Piedmont Park to play.  Leagues began to form in the 1920s and 1930s and Emory University started the first collegiate program in 1958. The game remained secondary to other sports until 1966.  During that year the World Cup in England sparked worldwide interest in soccer and professional sports finally came to Atlanta with the inaugural seasons of the Braves and Falcons.  In fact, Braves Vice President Dick Cecil led the charge to bring a team to Atlanta Stadium because of the hope of additional revenue that the game could produce.   Cecil, with the blessing of other Braves owners, purchased a team to begin play in 1967 during the initial season of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). The seeds of professional soccer in Atlanta were planted at this point.

One of Cecil’s first hires proved to be a home run when Phil Woosnam took over as general manager and coach.  Woosnam had played the game at the highest levels with English powers West Ham and Aston Villa.  With that pedigree, Woosnam knew the type of athlete he wanted in Atlanta and with the help and resources of Cecil, the two scoured Europe, Africa and the Caribbean to sign players for the new team, which took the name “Chiefs” because of its affiliation with the Braves.  After player tryouts at Emory, the Chiefs’ training facility, Woosnam settled on the final roster for the season.  The Chiefs finished with a 9-10-12 record and finished fourth in the East Division.  Attendance for the first year was almost 7,000 a game.  After the 1967 season the NPSL merged with the United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League (NASL).

Arguably, the pinnacle of professional soccer in Atlanta came in 1968.  The Chiefs began play in March and battled into September, finishing the regular season with an 18-6-7 record. The club then dispatched Cleveland and San Diego in the playoffs to claim the NASL championship. Yes, the Chiefs won the city’s first professional sports championship.

However, three brushes with international royalty may have been more exciting than the league championship.  First, the English Premier League champion Manchester City came to Atlanta Stadium in May.  Before more than 23,000 fans, the Chiefs shocked Manchester City and the world by winning 3-2.  Angry and embarrassed, Manchester players and management demanded a rematch.  A month later, the two teams met again before almost 26,000 patrons.  Proving the first outcome was no fluke, the Chiefs beat the lordly English team once again, 2-1.  All the English players could offer as an excuse after their second defeat was the Atlanta heat.

Emboldened by their European conquests, the Chiefs convinced the Santos Football Club of Brazil to play a match at the end of August.  Santos had a young star on the team by the name of Pele.  Before almost 27,000 delirious soccer nuts, Pele and Santos put on a show.  Behind the superstar’s three goals, Santos brought the Chiefs back to earth with a resounding 6-2 thrashing of the home team.  Still, the 1968 Chiefs finished 2 and 1 in international contests and won their league championship.  Unfortunately, the club could not sustain the momentum.

The Chiefs played before modest crowds of 3,000 to 5,000 fans from 1969 through 1972 and could not secure another championship.  At the end of the ’72season, Tom Cousins and the Hawks’ ownership bought the team. The Chiefs became the Atlanta Apollos and played at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus for the 1973 season.  After one season, the franchise folded.  Yet, the Chiefs would re-emerge behind Ted Turner.

Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves in 1976 and Dick Cecil remained with the organization.  NASL began a comeback in the late 1970s when the New York Cosmos lured such international stars as Pele to compete for the team.  Turner and Cecil purchased NASL’s Colorado Caribous in August 1978 and the new team, renamed the Chiefs, began play in Atlanta Stadium during the 1979 season.  The team struggled on the field and with attendance through 1981, when the franchise folded.  The Chiefs also participated in NASL’s winter indoor league during the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons in the Omni.  Attendance for the indoor games was better than the league average but the combined revenue for the indoor and outdoor seasons could not save the team.

Professional soccer in Atlanta witnessed an array of teams dribble in and out of the city over the next 35 years.  The Georgia Generals played one season in 1982 before folding.  Seven years later, the Atlanta Attack played in an indoor league from 1989-1991 before moving to Kansas City.  From 1991-1996, the Atlanta Magic played indoors with the United States Indoor Soccer League and won three championships.  The team also participated three seasons in the league’s outdoor version. Keeping with Atlanta soccer tradition, the Magic folded after the 1995-96 indoor season.

The Atlanta Ruckus began play in the outdoor American Professional Soccer League (APSL) in 1995.  The APSL renamed itself the A-League in 1996 and the league took over operations of the Ruckus following that season.  In 1998, the team found new owners, who changed the team name to the Silverbacks in honor of Willie B., a silverback gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo.

The Silverbacks continued to play in the United Soccer League before moving to the new North American Soccer League for the 2010 season.  The team folded in 2016 but re-emerged as an entrant in the National Premier Soccer League for the 2017 season.

Women’s professional soccer waltzed into Atlanta in the form of the Atlanta Beat. They played in the Women’s United Soccer Association from 2001-03, before the league folded and again in the Women’s Professional Soccer league from 2009-11, before that league folded.

Even with professional teams coming and going, Atlanta has demonstrated a passion for soccer.  Atlanta boasts a diverse population of over 6.5 million people, many of whom are passionate about the game.  When soccer matches involving international teams came to the Georgia Dome in recent years, fans packed the building.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank realized the passion for soccer in Atlanta and purchased a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise for the city in 2014.  In its inaugural season in 2017, Atlanta United FC leads North America’s highest ranked professional league in attendance.

Will the passion for Atlanta United continue as the seasons accumulate or will the franchise fade away into oblivion like so many of its Atlanta predecessors?  As Dick Cecil stated in 2013, “Atlanta is a big-event town.  They like the big event, they like to see winners…It (Atlanta United) will be successful at first. But you have to work it (to maintain the market share).”

From its auspicious start in 1968 with the Chiefs through the Dark Ages of the 1970s-2000s to the Renaissance with Atlanta United, professional soccer in Atlanta has survived.  The bet here is that professional soccer will thrive and flourish in this diverse city for years to come.  A-T-L!  A-T-L! A-T-L!

 

 

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