The city’s fan groups have each forged an identity and a following, and they may answer an important question: What does it mean to support a soccer team in the South — and specifically in Atlanta, the so-called capital of the South?
J. R. Francis has been wrestling with the question since 2013. At the time, another prospective fan, Matt Stigall, was helping to lead a petition drive to bring an M.L.S. team to Atlanta. Francis and hundreds of others quickly signed on. The petitioners got the attention of Arthur Blank, the Home Depot co-founder and Atlanta Falcons owner, by sending his staff news of how boxes of papers with signatures were mounting. By the end of 2013, they had gathered about 4,000 names.
One day, Francis said, they got a cryptic email from Blank’s organization. “It’s time to turn your petition drive into a supporters’ group,” the email said. Terminus Legion was born.
The name, Francis noted, has roots in Atlanta’s history. Terminus was the city’s first name, in the early 19th century, when Atlanta was not so much a bustling Southern capital but merely the end of a rail route that started in Chattanooga.
Four years after its founding, Terminus Legion continues to grow. At a midtown bar several weeks ago, an event called Terminalia drew dozens of fans with black, gold and red scarves, buzzing in anticipation of Atlanta United’s debut. Jorge E. Alonso, the group’s director of brand development, set up two laptops on a table to sign up new members amid the clamor.
Michael Page stood nearby. As he took his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans to pay for a beer, a blue Chelsea F.C. supporter’s card fell to the floor. Page, 49, lived in London for a year three decades ago, an adventurous teenager tending bar at a pub only blocks from Chelsea’s stadium, Stamford Bridge.
A geographer at Emory University, Page is a rarity in Atlanta: someone with family roots here that date back several generations. But he has followed Chelsea and England’s Premier League until now, finding it difficult to warm to M.L.S. because “I didn’t have a team where I’m from.”
A few weeks after Terminalia, Mark Knipfer was nursing his 39-year-old ankles after he and other members of the Faction, another supporters’ group, beat members of Terminus Legion, 2-1, in the last 60 seconds of a Sunday game. The Faction, Knipfer said, is like its founders: half from somewhere else and half native to Georgia, or at least generally Southern. It is more of a family-oriented set, with a website that pledges an embrace of values like “using sport to help develop youth character.”
The Faction raises money to support the Fugees Family, an Atlanta-area program that supports refugee children from 23 countries and that includes a school and soccer team. So far, the money comes from membership fees: $10 for adults, $5 for children. About 100 people have joined, Knipfer said. “We want to get to the point we’re recognized as a formidable force, maybe 1,000,” he said.
Footie Mob will announce its presence in a different way, by seeking to imprint two Southern traditions onto M.L.S.: tailgating and barbecue. “To me, tailgating culture is perfect for the South,” said Curtis Jenkins, a founding member.
Inside the stadium, Footie Mob members are planning chants based on the greats of Atlanta hip-hop, like Outkast, YoungBloodZ and Migos. There also will be nods to such Georgia bands as R.E.M. and the Allman Brothers. The goal, Jenkins said, is “if we were going to bring a blind man into the stadium, they should know they’re in Atlanta.”
As for the relationship between all these groups? Knipfer said they were “together and separate, which is a fine line to walk.” The hope is that the groups’ common interest in Atlanta United will be able to overcome anything that might come between them. Alonso, for one, is proud to have led an effort inside Terminus Legion to ensure that its members leave one piece of Southern history outside the stadium gates.
“I was the first one to say, ‘I see one rebel flag go up and I’m leaving Terminus,’” Alonso said.
There have been other efforts to unify, too. Last summer, at ATL Soccer Con, an event to celebrate soccer in the city, Sam Veal of Resurgence took part in a panel discussion with members of three of the fan groups. For nearly an hour, they passed a microphone back and forth, weighing in on a variety of issues related to the team, the city and its nascent supporter culture. As the event wound to a close, Veal made one final plea.
Be loud, he told the crowd. Be passionate. But please, he shouted, “don’t say, ‘You all.’”
“For the love of God,” he thundered, “when you go to the match, say, ‘Y’all!’”