After Messi withdrawal, Atlanta fans, team try to make the best of a nasty surprise

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 16: Brooks Lennon #11 and Tristan Muyumba #8 of Atlanta United celebrate after a goal as Sergio Busquets #5 of Inter Miami CF reacts during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Atlanta United players celebrate after a goal as Inter Miami’s Sergio Busquets reacts during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 16, 2023 in Atlanta. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — The city of Atlanta has suffered more than its share of bitter sports disappointments, but at least most of those happened during the game. One of the most anticipated regular-season events in the city’s history — a Saturday evening visit from Lionel Messi and Inter Miami — lost virtually all its celebrity juice 18 hours before kickoff. Messi opted to rest and remain in Miami, frustrating a sellout crowd filled with Messi jerseys and newly minted Inter Miami fans.

“I am highly disappointed, given the level of anticipation and increased seating capacity that was made available, which I thought was primarily based on Messi’s MLS involvement and attendance,” said Frank Chavez, a fan expressing the thoughts — and expenditures — of many in attendance. Chavez flew in from Texas with his son and bought tickets on the secondary market for $300 apiece.

“The preference would have been to have him here, obviously,” Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank said prior to the game in response to a question from Yahoo Sports. “It’s the nature of sports. Injuries take place. If he can’t be here, he can’t be here.”

The will-he-won’t-he began even before Messi officially signed with Miami. Even as speculators snatched up tickets for future Inter Miami dates in August, September and October, longtime Messi observers warned in ominous tones that he wouldn’t play on artificial turf. When that theory proved groundless, attention turned to Argentina’s World Cup qualifying matches held last week. When Messi sat out Argentina’s Tuesday match against Bolivia, hopes in Atlanta soared … only to crash late Friday night when word trickled out that Messi didn’t travel with the team to Atlanta and would not be playing after all.

“This is a decision that the team made because Messi has played in more games than anybody ever expected,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said shortly before the match began. “He came in quickly, he played in the U.S. Open Cup, the Leagues Cup, he played for his country. That’s a lot of games for a guy that’s delivered in so many ways, on and off the field.”

Still, for Atlanta fans hoping to see Messi, it must have felt like trying to defend the GOAT himself: a little hope, a little prayer, a little faith … and the knowledge that in the end, no matter what, Messi was always going to do whatever he wanted.

“We were mentally prepared for the worst to happen, and it seems like it has,” said Kael Rewers, who paid $150 a ticket and traveled from Illinois for the match. “The benefit is that Messi got us into the Atlanta United [when they played earlier this season], so we’re going to make the best of it.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 16: A fan holds a sign prior to a match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images)

A fan holds a sign prior to Saturday’s match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images)

Atlanta has a well-earned rep as a front-running town, its fans showing out in big numbers when their team is winning but always finding something else to do when the Braves, Hawks or Falcons struggle.

That dynamic doesn’t quite apply to United, however. The team averages 46,504 fans per game, most in MLS, per Soccer Stadium Digest. Eight of the top 10 most attended MLS matches have taken place in Mercedes-Benz Stadium; only LAFC’s Rose Bowl match on July 4 and Charlotte FC’s debut in March 2022 have eclipsed the Atlanta United.

Even with secondary ticket prices well into the triple digits, Saturday’s match almost surely would have ranked among the best-attended in MLS history. Instead, ticket prices cratered, falling from a get-in price of more than $200 earlier in the week to as low as $40 in the hours before the game.

For Saturday night’s match, the team opened up additional seating used for Super Bowls and college football national championships, and sold out the house. Despite Messi’s absence and the sky-is-falling ticket selloff, the vast majority of fans ended up coming to the match anyway.

Liz Goncher and Ian Helfrich, two local students, bought their tickets a few days ago for $300 apiece. “We got to see him a few years ago in Barcelona,” Goncher said. “So at least we’ve seen him once.”

If there was any doubt why many of the fans were at the match, only a few of the thousands in the crowd sporting pink Messi jerseys cheered when Miami’s Leo Campana scored the game’s first goal in the match’s 25th minute — and a whole lot more stood and celebrated when Atlanta’s Tristan Muyumba drilled an equalizer about 10 minutes later.

The absence of Messi-cheering casuals left the stadium’s atmosphere in the hands of the Atlanta United hardcores — the 17s, they call them here, after the year in which United began operation. With raucous chants, enormous swaying flags, fist-pumping Infinity Gauntlets and whirling giveaway towels, the 17s kept up a steady celebration that exploded into euphoria as United scored three straight to take a halftime lead of 3-1. United went on to score twice in the second half and Miami once for a final score of 5-2. It was Miami’s first loss since Messi arrived.

That, in the end, is the best result that Atlanta United could have hoped for, both on and off the field. Other clubs across MLS where Messi actually took the field — Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Dallas, among others — have reported that new fans who showed up to the stadium just to see Messi have returned later to support the home club.

“This team, this stadium was drawing 45-50,000 before the [Messi] schedule was made,” Garber said. “I’m sure there will be other opportunities.”

Meanwhile, most fans seemed to adopt Frank Chavez’s philosophy for how to appreciate the evening: “Having fun,” he said, “largely wishing that Messi would have made an appearance on the field, even for a few minutes.”

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