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Atlanta United & their record-breaking fans: The greatest debut season ever?

Atlanta United may only be in their first year in existence, but their rapid growth has seen goalkeeper Brad Guzan getting recognised more now than he ever did in almost a decade in the Premier League.

In a city where American sports are king, Major League Soccer’s (MLS) newest team are breaking records on and off the pitch.

Atlanta’s first ever game was only seven months ago, but this season they broke the league’s attendance record twice, with 71,824 fans watching their 2-2 draw with Toronto at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.

A billionaire owner, a former Barcelona manager, a brand new futuristic stadium and a fanatical fanbase have helped turn Atlanta into the story of the season in the MLS.

It was a project that persuaded former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough shot-stopper Guzan to leave behind the Premier League and return to the United States.

He told BBC Sport: “If I’m being honest, I feel like I am getting recognised more so here than I did in England, in terms of going out to the grocery store or the shopping centre, the fans are really engaged and into the team.

“That might not seem a big thing for the rest of the world but for an MLS team and for MLS, that is a huge step.”

Atlanta, known as the Five Stripes, now have a realistic opportunity to win the MLS Cup (the play-offs to decide the league’s champions) in their first season and face Columbus Crew in the first round of the play-offs on Friday morning – British summer time.

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Atlanta are owned by American businessman Arthur Blank, who is estimated to have a wealth of $3.9bn (£2.9bn).

The 75-year-old is the co-founder of the home improvement retailer Home Depot and is also the owner and chairman of the Atlanta Falcons in American football’s NFL, who also play at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

He had been working since 2008 to bring a top-flight football team to Atlanta and on 16 April 2014, the MLS awarded Blank an expansion franchise, to begin playing in 2017, as the league’s 22nd team.

Former Tottenham executive director Darren Eales was appointed president, while ex-Fulham and Rangers defender Carlos Bocanegra was made technical director.

Fans pay tribute to Arthur Blank
Fans wish owner Arthur Blank a happy birthday

Guzan had suffered back-to-back relegations from the Premier League with Villa and Boro, before joining Atlanta in the summer, with the deal agreed in January.

“I was at Middlesbrough and at the time things weren’t great in terms of my personal situation,” said the 33-year-old. “I had always known I wanted to come back to the MLS at some point in my career, I just didn’t know when that time was.

“You hopefully become stronger with the difficult times you go through. I do not have any regrets, I enjoyed my time in the UK.

“When the talks started and I was speaking with Darren and Carlos, seeing the project they were putting together here in Atlanta, it excited me.

“We would be able to leave our stamp on things and be able to essentially start from scratch and build it from the bottom up. That was a unique situation.”

Speaking about Blank, Guzan added: “He has helped transform the city in terms of the sports world, the fans really love him. To play for someone who is fully invested makes it easier to go about doing your job as a player.”

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Read more at bbc.co.uk

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