On the afternoon of Saturday September 16th 2017, Atlanta United Football Club did something many thought was impossible just a year or two ago. Pundits across the American soccer landscape thought soccer would never work in SEC Football country; they said Atlanta is a bad sports town, that can hardly draw crowds to “big” sports like baseball and basketball. The Five Stripes and their incredible fans have proved them wrong all season. But Saturday they proved everyone wrong in the most resounding way possible, they broke the single game attendance record for MLS.
Let that sink in, 70,425 people watched a SOCCER game in ATLANTA on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of September.
The previous record had been held by LA Galaxy in their inaugural game in 1996, when they drew 69,255.
However, the Five Stripes were without some key players going into the game. Centerback Leonardo Gonzalez Pirez missed the game due to yellow card accumulation and leftback Greg Garza was out with a nagging muscle strain. Manager Tata Martino slotted center defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz in at centerback and Chris McCann at leftback. Rookie Julian Gressel was placed in the defensive midfield position next to Carlos Carmona.
While Larentowicz had a decent game, the Five Stripes dearly missed LGP. USMNT striker Dom Dwyer was able to terrorize Atlanta’s backline in the air. His first goal of the game came in the 10th minute, after Larentowicz lost him at the back post. 25 minutes later, Julian Gressel made a late run into the box and set up Josef Martinez to tap in the equalizer at the back post.
However, Dwyer victimized the Five Stripes again on 39 minutes. This time Walkes lost Dwyer, who was able net another goal. 10 minutes into the second half, Martinez did his best Dwyer impression, drifting off the back shoulder of the Orlando City centerback and powerfully heading the ball in for a second goal.
Unfortunately, just three minutes later Canadian phenom Cyle Larin was able to drift away from Walkes and power in another header. Clearly, the Atlanta backline dearly missed LGP in the air all day long.
In past games, Tito Villalba has been able to rescue points against Orlando, rightfully taking the title “Lion Tamer.” However, it wouldn’t be him to save the day this time. But who else? Josef Martinez is who.
In the 69th minute, Martinez darted between the two Orlando centerbacks and cooly finished a cross from the Lion Tamer himself. Martinez second hat trick in as many games, rescued a point for the Five Stripes putting them fifth on 43 points with three games in hand on the Columbus Crew who are only a point ahead of them in fourth.
Next the Five Stripes take on LA Galaxy on September 20th in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, hopefully in front of another record breaking crowd.