ATLANTA – Fifty years ago, when the North American Soccer League was born and a young South African named Kaizer Motaung left his continent for the first time, there was no spaceship with a retractable roof housing a soccer team smashing league attendance records, scoring goals by the buckets and promising to bring to the hard-luck sports city.
Long before Atlanta United took Atlanta to Fulton County Stadium. Crowds have just shy of 5,800, which was ahead of the curved NASL.
In 1968, U.S. pro soccer was a foreign enterprise, introduced mostly by Europeans seeking to spread the gospel and make a few bucks. It would be another seven years before Pele would revolutionize the sport on these shores.
In that first NASL season, the Chief won a championship for Atlanta. The first leg in the Atlantic Division, before the September 7, before the September home audience of almost 15,000.
Motaung, 23 at the time, scored the last goal. He was named rookie of the year and led the league in scoring. Losing to Dallas, The Chiefs returned to the finals in his final year, in 1971.
Fifty years on the championship, he speaks with immense pride in what soccer has become in Atlanta.
"I said Friday via phone from Johannesburg. "At the time, except the neighboring countries here. I had an ambition to play overseas, and this opportunity presented itself.
"Atlanta will always be my second home."
I know so much when he created his own pro team back home in 1970, he named him after himself and his NASL employer: Kaizer Chiefs.
"Actually, we stole the logo," he said with a laugh. "I just wanted to keep that experience going on. We were in Atlanta. It's always in our minds, where we came from. "
Today, Kaizer Chiefs is one of the most well-known clubs in Africa and one is in a great world soccer derby with the crosstown Orlando Pirates. Home matches are played at FNB Stadium, site of the 2010 World Cup final.
From afar, the Kaizer Chiefs' chairman – and a legendary figure in South Africa – has marveled at Atlanta United's instant success. Financed by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the 2017 expansion team averaged 53,002 visitors this regular season, breaking the attendance mark last month (48,200).
The seven largest regular season turns out in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened last year and was designed with the Falcons and United in mind. United has been playing in a downsized seating arrangement (about 45,000), but the team has opened the full arena.
Most MLS teams draw on par with NBA and NHL teams; the league average attendance this year was 21.875.
The NASL lasted 17 seasons. MLS is in its 23rd.
"I watched CNN the other day that's a very big soccer city," said Motaung, who has not visited Atlanta since his NASL days. "I am just looking forward to being in the United States and particularly in Atlanta."
Saturday, when United will set the MLS Cup record, currently held by New England, which sold out Gillette Stadium (61.316) in 2002. (Most MLS championship games since the inaugural 1996 season have been played in medium-sized stadiums .)
Blank told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I've never been part of the camp that said Atlanta was a great sports town. I always believe if you put a great product on the field, you give the fans a great experience, that they will respond to that. … There were some people who were skeptical, but I did not give them a lot of audience. "
Atlanta United is also poised to bring something that has largely eluded the city for decades: a championship.
The Falcons have lost in the Super Bowl twice, including their epic collapse against the Patriots two years ago. Since arriving from St. Louis in 1968, the Hawks have never advanced to the NBA Finals. The Braves won the World Series in 1995.
The Atlanta Dream has lost in the WNBA Finals three times. Atlanta's defunct women's soccer team, the Beat, lost in the finals twice.
The Atlanta Chiefs became the Apollos in 1973 (owned by the Hawks) and soon dissolved. They reformed as the Chiefs for the 1979-81 seasons. After the 1984 campaign, the NASL was dead.
On Saturday, Atlanta will have a big fan 8,425 miles away. Reflection on soccer's passage of time, Motaung said: "It definitely had a future because we would go to the schools and give a lot of coaching during our spare time. I was confident Atlanta and, in fact, soccer in the United States would grow bigger and bigger.
"I want to wish the team well tomorrow. I hope they can do what we did. "
Who: Portland Timbers at Atlanta United.
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. Eastern
TV: Fox, UniMas.
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