For the last few weeks, MLS teams have been preparing for the upcoming season in camps across the United States—except for Atlanta United. The 2018 champions chose to train in Mexico for the preseason for the third time, aiming to gain a training edge, expand their brand south of the border and connect with its growing Latino fanbase.
“One of my main goals is to make sure my players experience different types of rivals, in different altitudes and different stadiums than those in the U.S., to achieve the level of soccer,” Gonzalo Pineda—the team’s head coach, who is from Mexico—told Sportico in an interview over Zoom. ” I know what Mexican fans [in Atlanta] want; they want to see their Liga MX team play against their local MLS team. It is important to create that connection.”
Atlanta is the only MLS club with a head coach and a technical director with Mexican roots. Pineda has been with the team since 2021. Carlos Bocanegra, the team’s technical director and a former U.S. Men’s National Team captain, joined Atlanta United in 2015.
Since Pineda’s arrival Atlanta has made sure to play with Mexican clubs multiple times a year. The squad traveled to Guadalajara, Pineda’s hometown, to play Leones Negros UdeG, they trained with Club Atlas Colomos in Zapopan in 2021 and this year, they visited Mexico City for preseason at the Mexican National Team headquarters. The preseason trip to Mexico ended with a 3-3 draw against nine-time Liga MX champion Cruz Azul at their home stadium, Estadio Azteca.
“Our intention is multi-faceted, beginning with facing stronger competition for on-field purposes, but also establishing relationships with Mexican clubs and growing our brand south of the border,” the club’s president and former MLS player Garth Lagerwey told Sportico. “We’re making it a habit to engage with Mexican clubs by playing in Mexico and hosting them here in Atlanta, which has a large and continuously growing Latinx population.”
Founded in 2014, Atlanta United began play as an MLS expansion team in 2017. “In 2017, 3% of our season ticket members identified as Hispanic,” Georgia O’Donoghue, the VP of business operations, told Sportico. “That number is now greater than 11%.” As the number of Spanish-speaking ticket holders grew, O’Donoghue said, they hired more bilingual associates to attend them. Today, 20% of their sales and service associates are bilingual.
According to the club, Atlanta’s Spanish Twitter account (@VamosATLUTD) grew more than 150% last year, and 68% of Atlanta’s TikTok followers are of Hispanic descent and come mainly from Mexico and Argentina. The communications team creates and distributes Spanish-language content to satisfy the demand on social media.
“We have a very passionate fan base that attends our matches, many of them Latinos, and among those, most are Mexicans, as we are the largest Latino population in Atlanta,” Pineda said. Atlanta United has led MLS in attendance every year since joining the league and has hosted 21 of the top 25 most-attended matches in league history. In 2022, the team’s average attendance was 47,116.
In 2022, Sportico estimated the club was the third most valuable in the league, worth approximately $855 million.
In preparation for the Leagues Cup, a tournament between MLS and Liga MX teams, Atlanta United will play in the American Family Insurance Cup, a one-day tournament launched last year to wrap up the preseason at their home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, against top Mexican teams. This year, the tournament will be played on Feb. 15.
“American Family Insurance is our kit partner and they also understand this growing Latino community and how we can better tap into that,” O’Donaghue said. “We get brand recognition, which is nice, but it’s not our primary goal. They’ve got great competition out in Mexico.”
The team’s efforts to reach a wider audience, especially in Mexico, should be amplified thanks to MLS’s new broadcast deal with Apple. The 10-year deal includes airing all MLS and Leagues Cup matches, offering more than 1000 matches annually with Spanish and English commentaries.
“Historically, Liga MX is the most-watched league in America. If we can get that audience to tune into MLS even as their ‘second team’ beyond that of their club back home, that could be a really powerful tool in terms of building the overall fandom and fan base,” Lagerwey said. “I think all of those things tie into the strategy of trying to connect with a Latin community all over the Americas. And that’s certainly something that I think we’ve done well.”
(This story has corrected the spelling of the names of Garth Lagerwey and Georgia O’Donoghue throughout.)