In 1967, professional soccer came to Atlanta for the first time with the debut of the Atlanta Chiefs. Owned by the Atlanta Braves, they shared Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with them. They called the National Professional Soccer League home for their first year, before joining the North American Soccer League in 1968 (and winning that league’s first championship, but that’s another story for another day).
Ahead of their opener, the Chiefs took part in an exhibition at the stadium ahead of a Braves’ spring training game with the Minnesota Twins. For many in the crowd, it was the first time they had ever seen what soccer looked like. R.K. Windott told The Atlanta Constitution, “First time I ever saw a soccer match, but I think I’m gonna like this game and I think the rest of Atlanta will too.”
Phil Woosnam, the player/coach of the Chiefs, made education a key part of the club’s mission. In their first year, the Atlanta Chiefs offered clinics to anyone who requested them. They ended up hosting 390 clinics across the region and helped introduce 20,000 kids to soccer. Those kids went on to join the first youth leagues and have helped develop the game in this area ever since.
On April 16, 1967, the Chiefs debuted in Baltimore in front of a national television audience on CBS. The Braves had a home game that afternoon, but installed monitors in the press box so reporters could watch the debut of their soccer venture. Guy St. Vil’s goal for the Bays doomed the Chiefs to a 1-0 loss in their first match.
Six days later, the Chiefs were preparing to host the Los Angeles Toros in their home opener at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Kickoff was set for 7:35 p.m. at the stadium. Woosnam, who came out of retirement to play in the match after an injury to his starting center forward, told The Constitution, “It is a big night for us. We want very much to become part of the local scenery. I’ll say again our lads are keyed up and ready for a good start.” Every attendee received a book called “This Is Soccer” that explained the game and its rules.
While it was not like Atlanta United’s sold out debut at Bobby Dodd Stadium last month, the Chiefs drew 11,293 to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for that opening match. Considering that the team was starting from scratch with no existing soccer community to draw from, the start was impressive. In fact, the Chiefs were one of the leading draws at the gate during the first two years of big-time professional soccer in this country. So much so, that some started calling Atlanta the best city for soccer in the U.S.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the rest of the teams did not do the same work off the field to grow the game and develop it in their communities. Woosnam and his emphasis on education was ahead of its time. The first version of the Chiefs survived the initial failure of the North American Soccer League when they scaled back to five teams in 1969, but the Braves pulled the plug in 1972. Ted Turner brought a second version of the Chiefs back to the city from 1979-1981 and they again planted many seeds for the game’s future growth in the area, but they folded a few years ahead of the eventual collapse of the league.
However, the Chiefs were instrumental in building an organized Atlanta soccer scene. The first youth leagues, including the Decatur YMCA league, started with many Chiefs’ players as the inaugural coaches. The Georgia State Soccer Association was formed to govern the sport’s growth. The Atlanta District Amateur Soccer League kicked off in the fall of 1967 and continues today. April 22 is a special day in the history of Atlanta soccer, when professional soccer first was played in our city.