After Messi’s retirement, Atlanta fans, the team tries to make the most of a bad surprise

By | September 16, 2023

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 16: Brooks Lennon b.  11 and Tristan Muyumba no.  8 of Atlanta United celebrates after a goal while Sergio Busquets n.  5 of Inter Miami CF reacts during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Atlanta United players celebrate after a goal as Inter Miami’s Sergio Busquets reacts during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Atlanta. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — The city of Atlanta has suffered more than its share of bitter sports disappointments, but at least most of them happened during the game. One of the most anticipated regular season events in the city’s history — Saturday night’s visit by Lionel Messi and Inter Miami — lost virtually all of its celebrity juice 18 hours before kickoff. Messi decided to rest and stay in Miami, frustrating a sell-out crowd full of Messi jerseys and freshly minted Inter Miami fans.

“I’m very disappointed, given the level of anticipation and the increase in seats made available, which I thought was mainly based on Messi’s involvement and presence in the MLS,” said Frank Chavez, a fan expressing the thoughts – and expenses – of many in attendance. Chavez arrived from Texas with his son and purchased tickets on the secondary market for $300 each.

“The preference would have been to have him here, obviously,” Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank said before the game in response to a question from Yahoo Sports. “It’s the nature of sport. Injuries occur. If it can’t be here, it can’t be here.

The “won’t do it” started even before Messi officially signed with Miami. Even as speculators snapped up tickets for future Inter Miami dates in August, September and October, longtime Messi watchers warned ominously that he would not play on artificial turf. When this theory proved unfounded, attention turned to Argentina’s World Cup qualifying matches last week. When Messi missed Argentina’s game against Bolivia on Tuesday, hopes in Atlanta soared… only to plummet late Friday night when word spread that Messi wouldn’t be traveling with the team to Atlanta after all he wouldn’t have played.

“This is a decision that the team made because Messi played more matches than expected,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said shortly before the start of the match. “He arrived quickly, he played the US Open Cup, the Leagues Cup, he played for his country. That’s a lot of games for a guy who expresses himself in so many ways, on and off the pitch.

However, for the Atlanta fans hoping to see Messi, it must have been like trying to defend the GOAT himself: a little hope, a little prayer, a little faith… and the knowledge that eventually end, whatever happens, Messi would always be gone. do what he wanted.

“We were mentally prepared for the worst that could happen, and it looks like it happened,” said Kael Rewers, who paid $150 a ticket and traveled from Illinois for the game. “The advantage is that Messi took us to Atlanta United [when they played earlier this season]so we will try to make the best of it.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 16: A fan holds a sign before a match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images)

A fan holds up a sign before Saturday’s match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images)

Atlanta has a well-earned reputation as a front-line city, its fans turning out in large numbers when their team wins but always finding something else to do when the Braves, Hawks or Falcons struggle.

This dynamic, however, does not apply to United. The team averages 46,504 fans per game, the most in MLS, according to Soccer Stadium Digest. Eight of the 10 most-watched MLS matches took place at Mercedes-Benz Stadium; only LAFC’s Rose Bowl game on July 4 and Charlotte FC’s March 2022 debut have eclipsed Atlanta United.

Even with secondary ticket prices well into the triple digits, Saturday’s game would almost certainly rank among the most-watched in MLS history. Instead, ticket prices plummeted, dropping from a starting price of more than $200 at the start of the week to as low as $40 in the hours before the game.

For Saturday night’s game, the team opened up additional seating used for Super Bowls and college football national championships, and sold out the house. Despite Messi’s absence and skyrocketing ticket sales, the vast majority of fans still came to the match.

Liz Goncher and Ian Helfrich, two local students, bought tickets a few days ago for $300 each. “We got to see him a few years ago in Barcelona,” Goncher said. “So at least we saw him once.”

If there was any doubt as to why so many fans were at the match, only a few of the thousands in the crowd wearing Messi’s pink shirt cheered when Miami’s Leo Campana scored the first goal of the match in the 25th minute of the match – and many others remained standing. and celebrated when Atlanta’s Tristan Muyumba tied it about 10 minutes later.

The absence of casual fans cheering Messi has left the stadium atmosphere in the hands of Atlanta United’s hardcores: the 17s, they call them here, after the year United got going. With raucous chants, huge flags waving, Infinity Gauntlets whipping and towels swirling, the 17s continued a steady celebration that erupted into euphoria as United scored three goals in a row to take a 3-1 lead at half-time. United scored twice in the second half and Miami once for a final score of 5-2. It was Miami’s first defeat since Messi’s arrival.

This, in the end, is the best outcome Atlanta United could have hoped for, both on and off the field. Other MLS clubs where Messi actually took the field – Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Dallas, among others – reported that new fans who showed up at the stadium just to see Messi returned later to support their home club.

“This team, this stadium, before [Messi] the program is done,” Garber said. “I’m sure there will be other opportunities.”

Meanwhile, most fans seemed to adopt Frank Chavez’s philosophy on how to enjoy the evening: “Having fun,” he said, “largely wishing Messi would make an appearance on the pitch, even if just for a few minutes.”

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