Pulling in the crowds

This week we had a larger than normal crowd of Chelsea fans at Finn McCool’s, the Irish pub in New Orleans where we go to cheer on the Blues. It was not due to it being the week of St Patrick’s Day, but because we had supporters travel in to join us from Baton Rouge.

The Louisiana capital is about 80 miles away, or an hour-and-a-quarter if you measure it in time rather than distance as Americans do. Either way, driving in is a laudable commitment when the total travel time is nearly twice as long as the action you get to follow on TV. We all sat outside in the glorious spring sunshine and enjoyed Chelsea picking up a much-needed three points.

However it was the attendance at another game, just 24 hours later, that caught my attention. It’s week two of the Major League Soccer season and the new club (or ‘expansion franchise’, as we say in the States) who joined last year, Atlanta United, had their home opener against DC United, our opponents on our pre-season tour in July 2005.

The Georgia team won 3-1 in front of a crowd of 72,035 fans in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a new high for the MLS. Indeed, they broke their own record from a post-season match with Toronto in October by fewer than 200, and it’s the third time they have pulled in more than 70,000 fans.

Last campaign they attracted more spectators than any outfit in MLS history, with average crowds north of 48,000. I think it’s incredible: that size of gate every fortnight would put them among the top 25 average attendances in Europe.

It’s impressive for a brand new setup based in an American football stadium in Atlanta, not considered a traditional hotbed of soccer in the USA, never mind the world. Just look at some of the European giants they are ahead of in terms of gate: Inter Milan; Paris St Germain; Atletico Madrid; Werder Bremen; AC Milan; Olympique Marseille, and Juventus.

And, at the moment, Chelsea. The Blues sell out nearly every match, and there is no doubt we could fill a much larger stadium for many fixtures. That’s why Stamford Bridge is scheduled to be expanded.

But for Atlanta, recently created from scratch, in the football wasteland of the Deep South, to bring more fans through the turnstiles than European powerhouses I’ve watched for four decades? I find it staggering.

I wish them well - even if they are called United and play in red…