DECATUR, Ga. — It’s a surprising bit of trivia: The U.S. men’s national team hasn’t played a game in Atlanta since 1977, a 1-0 win over China at Fulton County Stadium. There are a lot of reasons for the long wait, from Atlanta not having an ideal soccer venue to the lack of a top-flight club team here for so long.
But the times are changing here soccer-wise. The impending arrival of Atlanta United FC to MLS in 2017, along with the construction of a new stadium for that team and the Falcons downtown (albeit on fake turf), happens to coincide with hosting the semifinals for the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup at the Georgia Dome on Wednesday. More than 68,000 tickets have been sold for the double-header, with USA-Jamaica followed by Mexico-Panama.
For U.S. players Kyle Beckerman and Brad Evans, actually setting foot outside Hartsfield International Airport here is a new thing.
“We played Ghana with the U-17s here a long time ago,” said Beckerman, who’s now 33. “Lots of times when we’re in Atlanta it’s at the airport going somewhere. But I’m excited be back. This is a great time for soccer in Atlanta.”
Said Evans: “I’ve never been to Atlanta. Just passing through in the airport. No youth tournaments. No preseasons with MLS. Nothing.”
Evans, you might recall, has fond memories of playing against Jamaica. In June 2013, he scored his first international goal, a 92nd-minute game-winner—the latest for the U.S. in a World Cup qualifier—to beat the Reggae Boyz 2-1 in Kingston.
The three points that night set up the U.S. for a breeze through World Cup qualifying that summer en route to a place in Brazil 2014.
“That didn’t sink in until probably a couple weeks, a couple months later,” said Evans, whose crazy-man jersey-over-his-face celebration remains a lasting image. “You always remember certain firsts in your career, your first cap and then your first goal, and obviously away from home was incredible. The stadium, the atmosphere, no clock on the field. I had no idea what time it was even [in the game]. It was just pure emotion.”
For some reason or another, grass often seems to be a pertinent topic in USA-Jamaica games. In Kingston, there’s always a pungent aroma of ganja wafting through the stands. And here at the Georgia Dome there will be a temporary grass surface overlaying the stadium’s usual artificial turf. It’s the third time the U.S. will be playing on such a field in this Gold Cup after doing the same in Foxboro, Massachusetts, and Baltimore.
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How do the U.S. players get a sense of such a field when they first see it?
“We always get a walk-through on the field,” said Evans. “Nothing really hits you until you’re actually playing in the game. Warmups are completely different than a walk-through, and obviously a walk-through is different than actually playing in the game.
“The other day [in Baltimore] we did a walk-through the day before. We had some fun doing some juggles with the ball, but until I put on my boots and really was on the field and looking to sprint and change directions did I realize how heavy the field actually was. It felt like you were running through sand.”
The first thing Beckerman said he decides about a field is what kind of footwear he should use.
“Do I need to wear the mixed studs or the regular moldeds?” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. If it’s wet, you’re going to go with the mix. If it’s not, then you’re going with these [he pointed to his molded plastic studs]. You don’t want to slip. Usually in Europe you’re wearing the mixed studs. Usually in the States you’re wearing the regular. But in Kansas City it was pretty soft [on the natural grass].”
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The funny thing here is that while nobody expects the temporary grass surface to be ideal for Wednesday’s game, the natural grass on the U.S.’s practice field at Georgia State University on Monday got a big thumbs-up from everyone.
“This is ridiculous,” said Evans with a smile. “It’s amazing.”