One of the remarkable stories of 2017 in American soccer was the success of Atlanta United FC. In its very first season, the expansion club set MLS attendance records for a single game, a playoff game, and a full season.
But the organization is not standing still.
The club announced in November that in 2018 it would be expanding into the United Soccer League, adding a second team to their portfolio, later named Atlanta United 2.
ATL UTD 2 will play their home games at suburban Gwinnett County’s Coolray Field, home to the Atlanta Braves Triple-A affiliate Gwinnett Stripers (formerly known as the Gwinnett Braves).
In several ways, the new USL team follows an increasingly familiar blueprint.
The club had an affiliation with the USL’s Charleston FC Battery, but they felt a geographically closer and more organizationally integrated affiliate would be more effective. It’s a path that more MLS organizations are following – LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls all have second squads competing in USL.
According to club Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra “ATL UTD 2 is the fundamental link in our club’s vertical integration, connecting our Academy teams to our first team.” Atlanta United head coach Tata Martino suggested that it will be key to developing talent, giving young players “an opportunity to compete at a high level, continue to grow as players and use USL matches as a means to fight for positions in the first team.”
Additionally, the use of minor league baseball facilities is also becoming the norm in USL, as evident from this season’s additions. All four of the new expansion clubs for 2018 – Las Vegas Lights FC, Nashville SC, Fresno FC and now Atlanta United 2 – are beginning play in stadiums that were originally built for baseball.
Coolray Field opened in 2009, has a capacity of 10,427 for both soccer and baseball, and features 19 luxury suites, a 30×40 foot video board and a 6×42 foot LED board. Catie Griggs, Atlanta United’s Vice President of Business Operations, told the Gwinnett Daily Post that a third party will handle the baseball-to-soccer field conversion process, and game operations staff will be a hybrid of United and Stripers personnel.
Gwinnett County is a seemingly perfect location for the new team. The area has strong soccer community – with a number of successful youth clubs, as well as high school teams that have won the last six Georgia state soccer championships. The area is also the site of Infinite Energy Arena, home to Atlanta Gladiators, ECHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins, and the Georgia Swarm of the National Lacrosse League. Along with the AAA Stripers, the area has a track record of fan support for minor league sports franchises.
Griggs hopes that the stadium will provide Atlanta United FC fans and community members with a more intimate, but equally engaging, experience. Comparing it to the fan experience at Mercedes Benz Stadium for the parent club, she told the Daily Post, “From a family atmosphere standpoint, we’re very excited about the degree of intimacy a smaller stadium offers. I think it will be a slightly different experience. But from a fan experience and soccer standpoint, it should be very similar.”
If Atlanta’s MLS experience is any indicator, Atlanta United 2 should also succeed. The organization has shown the ability to achieve success, and quickly. Coolray Field may not be Mercedes Benz Stadium, but given their organizational track record, you wouldn’t bet against similarly rapid success.
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