At Five Points station, the MARTA train stop in Atlanta, you can hear the hottest sport in the city before you can see it. As you ride the escalator up, toward the concourse level, the sounds crescendo past the hiss of incoming and departing trains, the rumble of commuters, the crackle of fast food, the trap songs—a lot of Future and Trouble—blaring from smartphones. Upon reaching the structure’s apex, you can see the Five Points business district skyline. But your attention probably won’t land on the tall buildings or the Atlanta City Hall tower in the distance. Rather, your eyes will follow your ears to MARTA’s crown jewel—the world’s first soccer field built atop a transit station—and a group of young footballers playing on what is known around the “A” as “Station Soccer.”
“Come on!” shouts a young man with an almond complexion and Rasta-like dreadlocks. “That’s my ankle!” He loses possession to a Latino footballer in a yellow and green Neymar Jr. jersey. A dozen or so spectators sit near the pitch—an emerald turf that stretches nearly 100 feet long and 66 feet wide, ensconced by a transparent net and protective gating—taking in the action. The energy on the field is electric and prolonged; the two teams zip back and forth for what feels like an eternity without either side connecting for a goal. The run is both beautiful and serene—transfixing like a Newton’s cradle in motion.
Years ago, the space was an amphitheater before closing for safety reasons. But in 2016, the city, in collaboration with Soccer in the Streets, a local organization whose mission is empowering and engaging local youth with football programming, refashioned the space as a field, primarily for the enjoyment of idle inner-city kids. According to Sanjay Patel, SITS’ director of strategic projects, a plan is in place to build a “league of stations”—approximately 10—around Atlanta. The field is open to the public, but runs are organized and curated via SITS’ website.
Photo courtesy of Matt Conrod via Soccer in the Streets
The five-a-side play continues. Eventually, Neymar Jr.’s squad scores. Game over. Players who have been waiting patiently on the sideline begin scrambling to see which five has next. There’s an urgency in the air; only 30 minutes remain in today’s 90-minute pickup-game time slot.
The run at Five Points station is only one part of a vibrant soccer scene that has grown feverishly in and around the city in recent years. “I would say that soccer is the biggest sport in Atlanta,” says Ryan Glover, an appointee to MARTA’s board of directors and soccer dad to two daughters. “Above the Falcons, above the Braves and certainly above the Hawks.” If you drive around Atlanta, it’s not difficult to see: Soccer is everywhere—from the east side to the west, from the inner city to the suburbs.
The sport has particularly resonated with the city’s black youth. A big reason for that is the arrival of Atlanta United FC. The team was founded in 2014 and has become increasingly popular since its 2017 inaugural season. It broke MLS attendance records its first year, selling 886,625 tickets. (It also became the first MLS expansion club since 2009 to reach the playoffs.)
From the start, ATL UTD smartly integrated hip-hop culture into its marketing: At home games, tailgates are led by a Goodie Mob-inspired fan club called “The Footie Mob.” Homegrown rappers Waka Flocka Flame and 2 Chainz serve as team ambassadors; they are often a conspicuous presence at games, clad in red, black and gold apparel. (The back of one of 2 Chainz’s jerseys reads “Drench God.”) Yung Joc, Rich Homie Quan and Metro Boomin have all hammered in the Golden Spike. Archie Eversole—whose 2002 rap anthem “We Ready” is still a staple before games and a club classic in the A—recently released a song dedicated to Atlanta United FC called “United We Conquer.”
Photo courtesy of Atlanta United
The result has been a cultural shift—which is clear when you drive down Peachtree or cruise through the SWATS. With each trend comes a new dress code. And in Atlanta, soccer threads have been the wave for a while. Nigeria’s World Cup edition jersey may have been a Hypebeast essential in June, but there isn’t a hotter jersey than Atlanta United’s. The rapper 21 Savage has been seen reppin’ the team colors. So has Ludacris. And T.I. Girls and boys in the city often can be found with their favorite player’s name and number on their back. (Some go as far as copping the matching cleats.)
“Niggas always want what’s next,” says Aaron Dolores, owner of Black Arrow, a lifestyle brand dedicated to the intersection of soccer and black culture. “How many times can you wear a Bulls jersey? Like, you’re not going to set any trends in a Dallas Cowboys jersey.”
But soccer jerseys aren’t the only gear hot among young ATLiens. Melissa Franco, Best Buy Soccer’s assistant manager for both the Atlanta and Marietta locations, says that since the 2014 World Cup, youth interest in soccer has “more than doubled” business. “We used to carry just adult items because adults would play soccer after work,” she says. “But now everything is for kids from [age] four to five up to 17 and 18.”
Franco has seen an uptick in people who don’t just love the sport from the stands but play it themselves. Over the last half decade, kids in Atlanta have poured into local youth leagues, similar to how they have done in the past with American football and basketball. “Years ago you would see a few teens scattered around playing, but nothing formal,” Franco says. “Now they’re creating these clubs where you can play at four and five years old up to 19.”
Recreation leagues have sprouted up everywhere. A number of them feature children whose parents are celebrities. Waka Flocka’s 13-year-old daughter, Charlie, plays rec ball. She chose the sport four years ago after failing fourth-grade PE. “I thought she was trying to finesse me, but that’s the only sport she’ll go see [live],” Waka Flocka says.
Photo courtesy of Atlanta United
In fact, the former rapper says it was Charlie who helped push him toward the sport in the first place. Because of her, Waka Flocka accepted an invitation to attend a Barcelona vs. Real Madrid game during a family trip to Spain. The experience was transformative, he says, the atmosphere enamoring. (So much so that Waka Flocka returned to his hotel at 7 a.m. drunk and earned a tongue-lashing from his wife.) “Listen to the kids, man,” he says.
Other celeb parents have pushed their kids toward the sport amid concerns over CTE. When it was time for Shade 45 Sirius radio personality Sarah ViVan to choose a sport for her three-year-old son Dwayne, she gave him only two options: “I didn’t want him to play [American] football, so it was either soccer or basketball,” says ViVan, a former high school goalkeeper. Dwayne chose the former. Fast forward six years and he is now a member of the Inter Atlanta FC (IAFC) U11 squad.
Dwayne is a diehard Cristiano Ronaldo fan. And at nine years old, he’s even been touched by the gawd, thanks to his close proximity to fame. One time, Dwayne’s father, who goes by the professional moniker Lil Wayne, proudly showed Ronaldo footage of Dwayne kicking a penalty kick. “He said my son had great form,” ViVan remembers.
ViVan’s other child, a 13-year-old daughter named Essence, also has a penchant for world football. She is a fierce right back for the IAFC Blues and a huge fan of ATL UTD’s Franco Escobar. Her U14 Elite team made it to last season’s state tournament. “I want to play professionally one day,” Essence says. “But now I just enjoy being better than boys at a sport because they can be cocky.”
The sport’s impact on Atlanta youth is undeniable. Throughout the city, kids are dreaming more and more about jogo bonito. The culture—fueled by the enthusiasm of CTE-frightened parents, a successful MLS team, emcee endorsements and fly apparel—is shifting away from American football toward the world’s game.
But while many young, black ATLiens are finding themselves anew, outside city limits, soccer has long been life.
Generations before the A had an MLS club, before there was a pitch atop the MARTA station, the soccer capital of Atlanta was located in the northeast corner of the metropolitan area in a small suburb called Clarkston. The town is home to a huge immigrant population—mostly East and West Africans and Southeast Asians who began arriving in the 1980s. A number of talented footballers have been produced here over the years; many have passed through Clarkston High School (which last year vied for a state championship) and other nearby schools in DeKalb County. Some have gone on to Georgia Perimeter College before going overseas.
The epicenter of soccer in Clarkston is located approximately a half mile from the I-285 expressway, off Church Street, behind a set of tiny cottage-style apartments, at a caged field aptly called Community Mini Pitch. “This is like the Rucker Park of Atlanta soccer!” Otto Loewy, a scout and assistant coach for Atlanta United FC Academy, says gleefully. “All these kids do is play soccer—sunup to sundown.”
It’s a muggy summer day. The pitch, which boasts dimensions wider than those of Station Soccer, sits directly in front of backwoods as thick as the humidity. A group of teenagers—ranging in age from high school to college—kick a ball around the grass field. A few are from Thailand; the lone girl present is a formidable striker from Laos. The rest of the boys are from “the Motherland.”
Bonsu Thompson for B/R
The standout is a 15-year-old East African immigrant named Betwel Mateyo. He’s 5’5″ with a remarkable blend of speed and agility—and footwork that makes him particularly dangerous on the pitch. Loewy calls him a “baby Lionel Messi.” “The ball is like glue stuck to his feet,” he says.
Mateyo has a scar across his left cheek—he earned it in a game years ago—and a sparkling personality once you get past his shyness: a byproduct of his underdeveloped English. (“It has so many words,” he confesses.) He would much rather communicate with his feet than through speech. “I love soccer more than everything,” he says. “I don’t have time to, like, chill with friends. Soccer is my life. All day.”
Mateyo has already garnered some looks for his unique skill set and remarkable potential. Like most of the kids at Mini Pitch, he attends nearby Clarkston High School. But he is forbidden to play for its team because he plays on Georgia Soccer’s highest competitive youth level: U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Mateyo is the best player on ATL UTD’s U15 squad and often gets called up to ball with the older ATL UTD teams. Last year, he grabbed the attention of the U.S. national team for his age group.
Mateyo is a rare talent, but his success story is uncommon, particularly for someone from Clarkston. Club ball is typically reserved for more affluent—usually white—kids. Mateyo’s family, like many residents in the neighborhood, lives below the poverty line. He, his parents and his three siblings live in a tight two-bedroom apartment in the neighboring Parc 1000 houses. His mother and father work long hours at a chicken factory. They can’t afford to contribute time or money to any sport.
“Atlanta United help me a lot,” says Mateyo. “With cleats or clothes. Now I got everything I need.”
Photo courtesy of Soccer in the Streets
Most of Clarkston’s young talent is stuck kicking it locally because they can’t afford to travel to matches in other parts of Atlanta or open runs at places like Five Points. These kinds of circumstances are why Loewy rides out to Clarkston twice a week to shuttle Mateyo and a couple of the other academy players to and from practice. “Atlanta United pays for all the equipment and fees for the kids, but we don’t provide transportation,” says Loewy. “It’s not in the budget.”
The camaraderie between Loewy and the kids at the Community Mini Pitch is palpable. They banter with each other and make jokes. “So what are you waiting for?” one teen asks another on the sideline, as if to say, Who got next? The other teen, Jeremiah, a 17-year-old forward with a chipped tooth who plays for ATL UTD U19 and has garnered interest from the University of Central Florida and North Carolina, answers his buddy by antagonizing Coach Loewy. “Whenever this old man decides to put on his kicks.”
An amused Loewy takes the bait and agrees to lace up for a quick run or two. “I’m already out here, why not?” He grabs kicks from the trunk of his car and then shortly after reminds the kids that he once balled for the New England Revolution. Jeremiah’s team still gets the W.
Clarkston may be the mecca of black Atlanta’s soccer scene, but the city’s relationship to the sport hasn’t always been so warm. In 2006, then-mayor Lee Swaney banned soccer from being played at a city park. “There will be nothing but baseball down there as long as I am mayor,” Swaney told a local paper. “Those fields weren’t made for soccer.”
Many felt the move was made in response to the increasing popularity of soccer among refugees, many of them black, who had settled in the area after fleeing war-torn countries. At the time, a boys soccer team called the Fugees practiced on the field. The controversy made local and national news, and it eventually became the subject of a bestselling book.
Photo courtesy of Soccer in the Streets
When ATL UTD was founded in 2014, the franchise, perhaps recognizing the importance of the sport to the area, intended to locate its headquarters, a training facility and a 3,500-seat stadium in DeKalb County. But just before construction, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation discovered that the site, located on a former landfill, posed an “ongoing risk.” The cost to excavate the landfill was estimated at $20 million, so the franchise moved to the more affluent suburb of Marietta.
The decision to relocate exacerbated what was already a fundamentally unequal system of youth soccer in the A. Though the sport is cheap to play, it is expensive to play competitively. Most Georgia Soccer clubs require annual fees that can tally up to as much as $1,400 per child. According to Lauren Glancy, director of youth programs at Soccer in the Streets, Atlanta’s youth soccer landscape has a high barrier to entry, which removes the focus from a child’s talent and places it on the economic class of their home. “Clubs rely heavily on the pay-to-play structure, which excludes families that cannot afford access,” she says. “There are local Atlanta clubs that provide scholarship and financial aid opportunities, but clubs still rely heavily on the payments from families that can afford to pay.”
Travel is essential to youth soccer participation. And it only gets costlier as the competition level stiffens. In the Classic and Athena divisions, teams travel—typically county-to-county, or city-to-city. At the National level—one below Mateyo’s level—teams compete in elite showcases out of state. (Georgia is in a conference with North Carolina and South Carolina.)
Loewy knows the challenges of being an aspiring young, black, poor footballer intimately. He was born in Liberia, raised in South Atlanta. Twenty years ago, he tried to join an official youth club, but his mom couldn’t afford the fees. So Loewy painted fields with his mother and grandmother after each game to circumvent the dues.
Photo courtesy of Atlanta United
That experience moved Loewy to help Mateyo. “The majority of kids at Atlanta United, their parents are driving Lexuses,” Lowey says. “One parent drives a Bentley coupe. So you have the range of salary gaps from millionaire who can provide the best equipment, get his kid there on time, take him to games, give him the best resources needed to be a pro, and then you have Betwel, [who] has to fend for himself.”
Mateyo stands behind the Mini Pitch’s thick gating, entranced by his friends playing on the field. He’s a spectator right because of a sore groin, though he’s aching to play. As he looks on longingly, his vision locked on the action on the pitch, he talks fondly about the sport he loves. He began playing soccer at age eight, he says, but didn’t touch an official ball until arriving in America at age 10. “[In Eritrea], we make [balls] out of socks,” he says. “We keep putting some stuff inside and make it like a soccer ball.”
He isn’t concerned with ethnic disparities nor with any of the local politics that have sullied his favorite sport. One day he wants to play for this country—his new country, the United States, that is.
“We don’t have national team in Eritrea, so I want to play national team USA,” he says.
Mateyo’s refrain mirrors that of other black kids in Atlanta, such as Dwayne Carter Jr. and his sister, Essence. (“I will help shut opponents down for the [U.S.] women’s team!” Essence says. “Like, lead counterattacks, everything.”) Mateyo’s success—like the successes of other black and immigrant talent—will take a village. It will take more people like Loewy, to be sure. But it will also take efforts like those of Soccer in the Streets.
The future of Atlanta soccer is also the future of American soccer. The success of Mateyo is linked to the success of Dwayne Jr., which is connected to the success of Essence. Both Loewy and Dolores say that soccer’s future in this country depends on increasing awareness and inclusion of African American boys and girls. Soccer in the Streets aims to offer complimentary training and competition to underserved communities that lack access to sports-based youth development programs.
“Atlanta is really the perfect place [to grow soccer],” says Dolores. “Black culture in Atlanta is progressive—from the music to fashion.”
You can feel that progressivism the moment you set foot at Five Points station. After one match, the players decide to run it back. It’s a mixed crowd: Of the five young men, three are Latino, one is black and the other is of Middle Eastern descent. One sports a blue France World Cup jersey; another wears the red and black stripes, reppin’ his home team, ATL UTD. At this moment, race holds zero weight. Neither does financial status. There’s just a felt affinity for a sport that’s got the city turnt all the way up.
Bonsu Thompson is a contributing writer for B/R Mag and a media and marketing producer from the planet Brooklyn. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Source, creative consultant for MTV2 and senior writer at Slam. His script for the short film Story Ave recently won an award at the 2018 Manhattan Film Festival. Follow him on Twitter (@DreamzRreal) and Instagram (@Bonsudreamz).