ATLANTA — There were more than 70,000 fans packed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday for the 2018 MLS All-Star Game. Many of them wore Five Stripes kits to support the hometown team, Atlanta United, which had six players voted in, but soccer fans from around the country were represented.
Julian Pellman and his mother, Sara, were among those who traveled far to see the All-Stars take on Juventus. They’re from Salt Lake City and have been Real Salt Lake season ticket holders for more than five seasons.
“I just asked like, ‘Hey mom. We should go to the MLS All-Star Game in Atlanta,” said 19-year-old Julian.
Sara works for Delta Airlines, so was able to book a flight quickly. They bought their tickets in April and began plotting out a trip.
“Working for Delta opens up some possibilities, and we wanted to see [Mercedes-Benz Stadium,] and we’re soccer fans,” said Sara, 49. “So the combination worked.”
Right away, the mother and son were impressed by the stadium and Atlanta’s soccer-frenzy fanbase.
“I think they’ve done a great job growing the game,” Sara said. “To have this stadium, it’s pretty awesome. This is pretty stellar.”
Added Julian: “I’m a bit jealous, honestly. It’s pretty special. (Atlanta) feels like a European club.”
Joshua Jones is an Atlanta local and has been a season ticket holder since Day 1, back when the Five Stripes were playing their matches at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.
But those that don’t know him might’ve questioned his loyalty to the club on Wednesday. He wore a Juventus jersey and an Atlanta United scarf to the game. It was television that hooked him on the Italian club.
“To be honest, I started watching that Netflix documentary on Juventus and I really enjoyed it, so I bought a kit,” said Jones, 28. “It worked out perfect for today.”
Kits aside, Jones came to match hoping to see a Josef Martinez goal. His wish was granted in the 26th minute when the Atlanta striker sliced behind a chaotic Juventus defense and headed home a ball from Ignacio Piatti.
Martinez leads the MLS in the Golden Boot race this season, having scored 24 goals in 23 league games.
“It’s impressive,” Jones said. “I don’t know if he can keep this pace up, but I hope he stays in that form for the playoffs. He’s at another level. I don’t how long Atlanta United can keep him and [Miguel Almiron]. I’m just enjoying them while they last.”
Another soccer fan from Atlanta wasn’t so sure that Martinez would score Wednesday night. Mohammed Alshehrri, 25, bought his tickets two weeks ago and rocked a black and white Juventus jersey to the game.
Sipping a beer, he said Martinez would have a tough time scoring against the Serie A side, especially if Giorgio Chiellini was playing centerback.
“Chiellini is a very good player,” Alshehrri said. “To be honest, you cannot compare Martinez to Chiellini. I don’t think [Martinez] has a chance.”
Chiellini, a 33-year-old Italian defender, didn’t see the pitch in the first half.
Like Jones, Jake Newland is another Atlanta fan who opted to sport a different jersey to the game. The 25-year-old with an Arsenal tattoo on his right bicep wore a Mesut Özil kit to the match.
Arsenal was his first love. He started watching them when he was 6-years-old, long before Atlanta had an MLS team, and long before he found himself on the waiting list for season tickets.
“Now that Atlanta United is here, Arsenal is my No. 2 team,” Newland said.
Like Jones, he’s taken aback by how great Martinez has been this season, and he’ll be surprised if the Venezuelan is wearing an Atlanta kit in 2019.
“He’s unbelievable. It’s ridiculous how good that kid is,” Newland said. “I’ll be surprised if [Atlanta] keeps him over the next year or so.”
While there were many supporters for Atlanta United in the building on Wednesday, there were also haters.
Wearing a Nick Rimando jersey, Julian Pellman made the case that the Real Salt Lake goalkeeper should’ve gotten the All-Star nod over Brad Guzan. Rimando does have more saves than Guzan, 69 to 58, but Rimando has also allowed 16 more goals.
Pellman also called Martinez “a poacher.”
“I feel like he’s not really a team player. You just sit in front of the goal,” Pellman said. “You see some of his hat tricks and the ball looks like it’s already going in and he just gets his head on it. He’s an excellent player, but…”
One thing Pellman and the rest of the fans could agree on was that they were excited to see the stars of MLS take on Juventus, even if the Italian side didn’t bring its full squad.
“I’m excited to be here because this is something I thought I would never get to watch growing up, because Atlanta didn’t have an MLS team,” Newland said. “It’s a really cool opportunity for us to come together as a football community.”