Critics of Atlanta's MLS expansion team say the metro region doesn't have a soccer history. That's not true. Atlanta had Phil Woosnam, a Welsh soccer star who came to the United States in 1966 to help the Atlanta Braves set up, and later coach, the North American Soccer League's Atlanta Chiefs. It was the first team in the city to win a professional championship. In the decades since, soccer has flourished throughout the metro region. The Chiefs, which folded in the early 1970s, even made a comeback under Ted Turner later that decade. After a lull on the professional level, the momentum has returned, says Graham Tutt, a retired British goalkeeper, who, after playing for the Chiefs and Georgia Generals, helped create soccer camps across the state. More youth players are kicking balls than ever before. Amateur players pack rec fields seven days a week at the same DeKalb County complex where the Atlanta Silverbacks, the cream of the region's professional soccer crop, also play in front of thousands of fans. CL spoke with some of the people who watched the Chiefs blossom and are part of the game's history in metro Atlanta. The following interviews have been edited and condensed.
Phil Woosnam, who died in July 2013, speaking to the BBC in 1967: When I came to Atlanta, I was impressed with the stadium and the baseball club, the development. You get the feeling that everyone is very aware and wanting to move ahead. I'm sure that this is the right time, in this city, for soccer to come here.
Dick Cecil, former Braves business manager who traveled throughout Europe and Africa with to scout players. He served in the same role for the Chiefs: Eight schools were playing soccer in Georgia when we got the franchise ... St. Louis and Chicago had [large ethnic populations] that knew soccer. We didn't. Everyone thought we were crazy because soccer in Atlanta, Ga., in the 1960s didn't mean a whole lot. Especially if you called it football ... Martin Luther King Jr. had just won the Nobel Prize. The city was vibrant. You had great leadership. A lot of people were moving to Atlanta. You came to Atlanta ... The city wanted to become international and this was a showpiece. We beat [Manchester City]. That made stories in major cities around the world. It helped bring Atlanta into being a major league sports city.
Graham Tutt, an English goalkeeper who joined the second iteration of the Atlanta Chiefs in 1980: [Man City] were coming through Atlanta. Phil thought this [would be] a wonderful opportunity to have an exhibition game. Man City got angry because Atlanta beat them. On their return trip they wanted revenge and Atlanta beat them again. Atlanta was the first team to win a national [championship]. Over time, people came to forget, but it's part of Atlanta's history.
Ruth Woosnam, widow of Phil Woosnam, and former NASL referee coordinator: There was so much enthusiasm. After the people came to see the novelty of it, there was a fan base. By the time I [moved from suburban Chicago] to Atlanta in 1969, people weren't going just to be seen. They went because they loved the game.
The Chiefs and Generals played nearly all their games in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. Crowds weren't huge, but sometimes reached 10,000.
Cecil: Here was this brand-new stadium. It was the multipurpose stadium common in the 1960s. Terrible for anything (laughs). But it was home.
Tutt: There was a sandy area we'd run across where the baseball diamond was. And the field was 100 yards long. It was too short.
Cecil: The crowds were emotional. We were playing St. Louis. We were behind 3-1. Then it got to be 4-1. We had eight players on the field. Then we scored two goals. The crowd was on their feet for 20 minutes. Women were standing on their chairs yelling at St. Louis players and the refs. It was the wildest crowd I'd ever seen.
Tutt: I remember one game the crowd started clapping when we had a free kick from 35 yards out — like it was a field goal. There was an expectation of a point or two being scored. The crowd reacted at the wrong time for me in some respects. There was a learning curve.
Professional soccer in Georgia tried to gain a foothold after the Chiefs folded. While teams tried to compete on the professional and minor levels — including the women's team, the Atlanta Beat — the game was thriving among youths. DeKalb County was ground zero for that movement.
Boris Jerkunica, co-owner of the Atlanta Silverbacks: Druid Hills was the hub of Atlanta's soccer scene. DeKalb County Schools System, when I was growing up, was the best soccer in Georgia. If you won DC you won the state. Druid Hills, Lakeside, Southwest DeKalb, Redan. They were the powerhouses in the late '70s and '80s.
Tutt: If there's a heartbeat, it started there and it went from there to the suburbs to Conyers to Cherokee County and then to Augusta.
Jerkunica: I grew up 300 yards from Emory, where the Chiefs used to practice. One of the guys was from Yugoslavia. My dad got to know him, he would come over for dinner and he'd give me pointers. All summer long, back in those days, at 8:40 a.m., parents kicked you out of the house and said don't come back until dinner. What we'd do is play soccer all day long. That's how I made friends. When I was 10 or 11, the Emory soccer coach would kick us off the field all the time. It was the varsity field! And here we were, a bunch of brats. We'd come down, he'd kick us off the field, and then we'd come back on it. He'd do that two or three times a day. And then I ended up playing for him in college ... In the 1980s, it kept accelerating. More and more youth clubs. By the end of the 1980s, that's what you did as a kid. By the 1990s and late '90s, it even started going into more inner city areas. All of a sudden it was penetrating not only the white suburban culture but also the inner city culture. All of a sudden these kids were like, I want to play soccer.
Sean Johnson, Chicago Fire goalkeeper, Brookwood High School alum: In the early days there was the Southeast Athletic Complex. Me and my dad, we used to go over there and they would have a Caribbean league on Sundays. I thought it was just the coolest thing in the world to be out there and watch these guys run around and kick a soccer ball ... High school soccer was a bit more prevalent back when I was a freshman in high school. The club teams were strong, too. We won some national titles with the Atlanta Fire, there was also AFC Lightning.
Clint Mathis, Chicago Fire assistant coach, Heritage High School alum: Redan High School, McIntosh — when I was in high school — were really good. You had the Parkviews, you had the Brett Conways. Brett ended up being a professional field goal kicker, but he was always a great soccer player. The competition was high and Georgia soccer started developing these guys and getting more notoriety.
Tutt: The talent 30 years ago compared to today ... some days it was like a rugby match. You were expecting them to pick up the ball!
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