It has been over 30 years since the Atlanta Chiefs have kicked a soccer ball in an organized professional game – a period of time that has unfortunately led to the iconic brand fading into the depths of the city’s professional sports history. Today’s soccer discussions in Atlanta revolve around giant youth clubs, the development of more facilities, and the ever-present desire for top-flight professional soccer. Only once in awhile do the discussions involve the Chiefs.
The ironic part about omitting the Chiefs from the city’s soccer conversation is that much of what you see within the sport today can be owed entirely to the efforts of Atlanta’s original NASL franchise. The Chiefs organization was the face of the early soccer movement in Atlanta, organizing clinics, helping build youth clubs, and using their players to promote the sport and increase participation in the community.
Rewind back to 1966 when Dick Cecil, then the Vice President of the Atlanta Braves, decided to bring a professional soccer franchise to the city following his visit to the FIFA World Cup in England. Some considered it a risk, but like a true pioneer, Cecil moved forward, committing himself and his organization to the growth of the sport in Atlanta.
At the time, soccer was primarily a European sport, and something the city of Atlanta wasn’t particulary familiar with. “Soccer wasn’t very widespread at all – it was only being played in a few areas of the city,” said former Chiefs defender Alan Hamlyn, who spent three seasons with the club from 1971-1973. “Even then, it was mainly recreational and largely undeveloped.”
With the interest level and participation numbers low, Cecil seemingly saw only one option when it came to spreading the sport – be everywhere. If it meant using each of his players three times a week for appearances or free clinics, then that’s what he did. The Chiefs were in schools, parks, recreational facilities, shopping malls, and even bars. Former Chiefs defender Mark MacKain fondly remembers a juggling contest between players at a bar event.
“It was dimly lit, there was smoke everywhere, but everybody had a blast,” MacKain said. “It was really just about getting out there in the community and being seen.”
While bar events captured older crowds, most of the organization’s outreach focused on the youth. Whether it was organizing free community clinics that taught simple foot skills or serving as volunteer coaches for local recreational teams, the players were often times just as busy with events in the community as they were with their actual jobs on the field.
“We even handed out our game schedules to everyone, and invited them personally to our games,” said former Chiefs goalkeeper Graham Tutt. “The impact was huge because you would see these people turn up at our games and cheer us on – many of them even became good friends of ours.”
Translating community contact into fan attendance was always the goal for Cecil, and the Chiefs achieved that with such an incredible commitment to promoting the sport off the field.
“It was very simple – we realized that if there were no fans, we would not have a job,” Tutt said. “Plus, we truly enjoyed interacting with the kids and parents at player apperances because they were so much fun.”
The Chiefs unfortunately folded after the 1981 season when co-owner Ted Turner had to make a tough decision between keeping the team around or focusing his financial resources on the Braves. The Chiefs’ impact on Atlanta and its development of soccer was only just beginning, however.
Tutt, MacKain, and several other Chiefs players continued to serve the community and grow the sport through coaching. Others like Adrian Brooks opened soccer stores. For MacKain, the impact the former Chiefs were able to have on the development of players and the improvement of equipment and facilities in Atlanta isn’t even measurable.
“I don’t know that we could even begin to repay some of these guys for all of the work they have put in,” MacKain said. “Someone like Dick Cecil – he was so much more than a businessman running a soccer team. He was involved at every level, and his passion for the game rubbed off on everyone.”
From an inside perspective, it’s easy to see how engrained the Chiefs were in the community, but what about the thoughts of someone not directly involved with the organization?
Rick Skirvin, currently the Executive Director of Georgia Soccer, the state’s governing body, fondly remembers the Chiefs’ involvement in the sport back in the early days.
“With the original Chiefs, they did everything from organizing teams to coaching youth players to playing scrimmages against local amateur all-star teams,” Skirvin said. “They were the major instrument in soccer becoming organized in Georgia.”
Skirvin echoed that there was virtually no youth soccer when the Chiefs were founded in 1967, and by the late 70s and early 80s, it began to really take off. Instead of playing recreationally within associations, clubs began to compete against each other. Training became more organized and specialized, and the level of play continued to improve with time.
So one simple question remains. To what degree does Atlanta owe the current state of its sport to the Chiefs?
“If not for the Chiefs, it may have been years before organized soccer got off the ground – particularly youth soccer,” Skirvin said. “The sport has since quadrupled in participants, and soccer is now being taken much more seriously by the Atlanta sports community.”
Hamlyn agrees, noting that “everybody knows what soccer is now, and participation by both boys and girls is massive across all ages and skill levels.”
This past August, the Atlanta Silverbacks hosted Atlanta Chiefs Legacy Night as one of their gameday promotions. It was the first time in years that the Chiefs were recognized for the trail that they blazed. Former players were honored, old stories were shared, and new generations learned about the rich history of their sport in Atlanta – a history that the Silverbacks will continue to develop as time goes on.