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 a trophy to this hard-luck sports city.
Long before Atlanta United took MLS by storm and advanced to Saturday’s final against the Portland Timbers in just its second season, the Atlanta Chiefs performed at what would later be named Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Crowds averaged just shy of 5,800, which was ahead of the NASL curve.
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 Chiefs won a championship for Atlanta. They finished first in the Atlantic Division and, after a scoreless draw in the first leg of the finals, defeated the San Diego Toros, 3-0, before a September home audience of almost 15,000.
Motaung, 23 at the time, scored the last goal. He was named rookie of the year, and a season later, led the league in scoring. The Chiefs returned to the finals in his final year, in 1971, losing to Dallas.
Fifty years on from the championship, he speaks with immense pride in what soccer has become in Atlanta.
“It was wonderful memories that never get away from my mind because I enjoyed my stay in Atlanta,” he said Friday via phone from Johannesburg. “At the time, I had never traveled outside the country, except the neighboring countries here. I had an ambition to play overseas, and this opportunity presented itself.
"Atlanta will always be my second home.”
So much so, when he created his own pro team back home in 1970, he named it 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 wanted to model ourselves against what my experiences 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 involved 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 it set last year (48,200).
The seven largest regular season turnouts in MLS history have occurred at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened last year and was designed with both the Falcons and United in mind. United plays most games in a downsized seating arrangement (about 45,000), but on occasion 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 on CNN the other day that it’s a very big soccer city,” said Motaung, who has not visited Atlanta since his NASL days, which included two seasons in Denver. “I am just amazed but also proud that we laid the foundation of soccer in the United States and particularly in Atlanta.”
Another figure will fall 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.)
Asked about the soccer boom in a much-maligned sports city, Blank told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “I’ve never been part of the camp that said Atlanta was not a great sports town. I always believed 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 didn’t 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 United will have a big fan 8,425 miles away. Reflecting 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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