What if the Lebron James’s, the Julio Jones’s, and the Kobe Bryants of the world made the decision at an early age to trade in their basketball or football for a… futbol? I know…preposterous, blasphemous in fact, that three of the United States greatest athletes would play soccer. But, my friends, could you imagine: a 6’8” Lebron at center forward collecting a perfectly struck long ball on his chest, turning, then fizzing a half-volley into the back of the net. Or Julio Jones, Atlanta’s very own cyborg, blazing down the wing, bamboozling defenders with speed and strength akin to Cristiano Ronaldo; a prospect I’m sure many United States soccer fans have fantasized about. Well, after this weekend, I’m here to tell you that those days are still far away, but there certainly is a light at the end of the tunnel.
This past Saturday marked the breaking of the MLS single-game attendance record, previously held by Los Angeles. Over 70,000 fans (including Alex and I) packed the newly built Mercedes-Benz stadium to watch Atlanta United take on rival Orlando City. The game itself was thrilling, resulting in 6 total goals scored, and Josef Martinez walking away with yet another hat trick. The offense looked to have carried over its form from the Revolution match, but credit to Orlando for creating chances on a United defense that was relatively organized, minus a few miscues. All in all, the experience was incredible and one I will not soon forget.
Yet the record-breaking crowd, the rivalry, and even the game itself all seem self-evident when considering the storyline. 1996 marked the start of the MLS’s inaugural season, as well as the establishment of the previous single-game attendance record of over 69,000. From then on, American soccer began its steady crawl toward futbol legitimacy. Provoking questions like, Will the US ever have a league comparable to the likes of those in Europe? Will the US ever be a significant threat internationally? Will US players ever have international success? When, if ever, will the US win a World Cup?
Unfortunately, my crystal ball is out of order, but what I can tell you is that we’re moving in the right direction. This weekend a first-year squad broke an attendance record in a city that many said didn’t have the ability to nurture a sports franchise, much less an MLS team. This weekend 70,425 people filled a stadium to watch a soccer match, not a football game and made the idea of Lebron James in a national team jersey a little less far-fetched. All jokes aside, we are far from the “lifestyle” that is European and South American futbol, but we are one step closer to the relevance we have worked so desperately to achieve.