The subway helped segment Atlanta; soccer at its stations may help unite it

Curtis Jenkins grew up like most native Atlantans: riding MARTA trains, playing pick-up games of basketball, hanging his head about the Hawks.

But after several failed attempts to build a team in his neighborhood of East Point, his favorite sport – soccer – went unplayed. 

Decades later, Mr. Jenkins leads the Footie Mob, one of a number of supporters’ groups that have latched onto the Major League Soccer expansion team Atlanta United. Last week, the team did what many thought impossible: It knocked Real Madrid out of the Top 25 global soccer rankings, becoming the first MLS team to enter that echelon. The team regularly hosts the third or fourth best-attended soccer games – in the world.

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For a Southern metropolis where 37 percent of residents are transplants, and which ranks dead last in the US when it comes to upward mobility, there’s a “1,000 percent civic pride” that Jenkins says he feels he is part of now. And that sense of connection, in a city where people historically keep to their own neighborhoods, is translating far outside the big stadium downtown. The team is drawing an increasingly diverse set of kids and adults into the sport – and soccer is literally interconnecting the city, with pitches being built inside transit stations.

Sanjay Patel got an idea while on the London Metro, watching kids carrying soccer balls on the train: Why not in Atlanta?

“A lot of kids we work with are locked in these communities and don’t have access to sport, to life opportunity,” says Mr. Patel, who brought the idea of “station soccer” to Atlanta. Two transit stations currently house new soccer fields, with eight more stations to go. “What we are noticing … [is] people are coming together into a space they normally would walk by and not even look at, and becoming like a community. [We want] to stitch the [transit] demographics or network together, including lot of communities that have often been swept under the rug or forgotten.”

Enthusiasm for Atlanta United is creating an unprecedented “mixing of neighborhoods” in a city defined by its tight neighborhood fiefdoms, says Phil Hill, director of Soccer in the Streets, which has worked for 30 years to use soccer as a way for city kids to grab life opportunities.

“I was driving through a neighborhood and I see a guy crossing the street with a Roma top on – and not a white middle-class guy, either,” says Mr. Hill, referring to the professional Italian soccer club. “Then you see a guy with a Messi shirt on. It’s cool to be behind soccer.”

While soccer in the US remains largely a game of the middle-class suburbs, Atlanta’s sudden futbol bonanza has its own urban flair: Rap legends like Jeezy hammer the “Golden Spike,” an Atlanta tradition and symbol of unity; Hispanic cheering sections bounce in the stands; and supporters’ groups like the Footie Mob and The Faction get down with some competitive tailgating before they march to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Tailgating a United game is “such a cool thing, because visitors come and say, ‘You all don’t hate each other? You’re right here together and no fights?’ ” says Jenkins. “Our answer is we’ve all got things to do in the morning. And loving my team doesn’t mean putting anyone else down.”

Jenkins, a fire marshal, is part of a grassroots movement that believes soccer can challenge ingrained economic and racial divides apparent even in a city that has had a black mayor since the early 1970s. 

Planners say part of the city’s divides were by design, baked into the way MARTA, the public transit system, was built. For example, spurs from hubs were at times either built or not built based on racial and economic considerations, sometimes at the cost of equal access. But such barriers have begun to fall away, experts say.

“The way these stations are helpful in bringing people together is an equity issue,” says Chris Wyczalkowski, an urban studies researcher at Georgia State University. “These stations were originally intended to be neighborhood centers and they are finally making that happen. That can create spillover effects.”

The transit system in Atlanta is more known for its brutalist architecture than its foresight. Yet when Patel approached its directors, they agreed to give station soccer a try. The first pitch was created out of an unused small amphitheater at Five Points, the system’s nerve center. Two months ago, the city’s West End stop received two outdoor pitches. A transit system that has for years been the butt of unkind jokes, meanwhile, is now being hailed in transit conferences from Pittsburgh to Munich. At the “Rail-olution” conference in Pittsburgh earlier this month, transit managers from the around the US queued up to talk to Patel after his presentation. The excitement has given way to new ideas to create community spaces out of hard-edged concrete buildings. Next up are station farmers’ markets.  

From the tailgates to the incorporation of traphouse lyrics (a rap style popularized in Atlanta) into cheerleading chants, the team has indubitably brought the city together in unexpected ways. When the microphone failed for the singer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a game last year, the entire stadium picked up the slack, belting out the tune in heartwarming harmony.

And last month, the Atlanta City Council, after a year of deliberation in the wake of Charlottesville, erased “Confederate Avenue” from one of its streets. Its new moniker? United Avenue.

That a football club could turn a racially and economically challenged city into unified soccer mob has come as a surprise to native Atlantans like Jenkins, who say they never understood the depth of the pent-up desire not just to win on the pitch, but to be a part of something bigger than their porch.

Before the Five Stripes, as the Atlanta United are known, came to town, “We’re all watching games in our bar with our friends – Manchester United – and it’s like 50 people and you get to know them and you think, ‘Maybe there’s 1,000 of us in the city that are willing to do this,’ ” says Jenkins. “Then 52,000 people show up for the first game and they come again for the next game and the next, and it keeps building. I don’t think any of us had any idea how many people were watching in their corner bar or on their couch on Sunday mornings. We really found out how many people there were, that were ready for this.”

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