Once the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened, the players had spacious facilities and anything else they needed on site. But the team liked the idea of a grand arrival, so the walk-in has been preserved — with a little sleight of hand. Before nearly every home match, Atlanta United players eat a pregame meal inside the stadium and then change into matching gray suits with white shirts and red ties. They then board a bus, which drives a short loop around the block before pulling up near the front gate. There, hundreds of fans wait along a long red carpet, cheering and high-fiving the players as they walk back into the building they just left.
As part of the ritual, each player stops about halfway down the red carpet to sign a large replica of a gold-painted railroad spike, an allusion to Atlanta’s history as a railroad terminus. When the players are finished, fans mob the spike to sign it themselves.
Then, shortly before kickoff, members selected from the team’s supporters’ groups — there are several, each with its own ethos — carry the spike on their shoulders into the stadium and down to the first row of the end-zone seats. It is mounted onto a platform, and a fan with a mock sledgehammer, or a celebrity guest, pounds it three times as the roaring fans yell, “A-T-L.”
At every game the rituals are repeated: another bus ride, another spike, another full-throated ovation. Often, another win follows.
Thomas Thornton, who belongs to Terminus Legion, one of the supporters’ groups, was one of the fans who carried the golden spike to the field before a game in April. Raised near Atlanta, he has seen every other hometown team play. But nothing, he said, matches the communality and energy of an Atlanta United game.
“There’s no better 72,000 people to spend an afternoon with than psychotic Atlanta fans,” he said, his voice hoarse well before kickoff. “It’s truly our city, our club. And it will never stop.”