Why Bring Back the Atlanta Chiefs?

With all the buzz surrounding a potential return of the Cosmos, and the successful of return of classic American soccer brands like the Timbers, the Sounders, the Strikers, and now the Rowdies – it may seem inevitable that we’ll see an Atlanta Chiefs FC attacking a pitch sooner rather than later.

But doubts persist about the return of this classic name in American soccer.  After all, they weren’t around for the entirety of the NASL.  Just a glorious early period, followed by a mediocre return in the league’s last years (albeit sporting killer jerseys).  So how influential were they, really?  On closer examination, the Atlanta Chiefs had a profound impact on American soccer culture and significant influence beyond our shores.

First off, we won the 1968 NASL championship, nicely documented here in British football magazine WSC.  Phil Woosnam, the manager who led us to the title that year, went on to become NASL commissioner and then took on a key role with US Soccer.

It is less widely known that the youth soccer phenomenon in the United States has significant roots in Atlanta and was fueled by an enthusiastic Atlanta Chiefs staff and roster.  A fascinating 2008 article from The Global Game details Chiefs player Ron Newman’s accounts of their pivotal role in kick-starting this American sports movement:

“Newman remembers the first impromptu community soccer practice at the Williamsburg Village Apartments, a network of garden flats north of Emory University in Decatur, Atlanta’s eastern neighbor. Scheduled for 7 p.m. by the apartment pool, no one came. By 8 p.m, they had more children than they could handle. Such was suburban soccer born…

By 1969, the Chiefs, members recruited for their zeal and future coaching ambitions, had helped launch…an unprecedented grassroots soccer effort, developing the game from less than 200 amateur players…to a city network of some 16,000, including 42 high school teams.

By the time of a visit from Manchester City for a friendly in May 1968, City manager Joe Mercer could say that ‘Atlanta is the most soccer-wise city in the States.’ 

Speaking of the Manchester City visit, IBWM’s recent article on the global influence of the Chiefs contains this now legendary anecdote about the English side’s then Assistant Manager:

“Strangely, Malcolm Allison also wrote himself into Chiefs history in 1968. After his Manchester City side (then champions of England) were defeated 3-2 by Woosnam’s charges while on a pre-season tour, Allison famously described the Chiefs as a fourth division side and proclaimed that the victory was a one-off that they could never repeat. When one of City’s tour games was cancelled Woosnam challenged Allison to a rematch and the Chiefs won again, defeating City 2-1.”

The article goes on to discuss a legendary Chiefs veteran and his contributions to the world game:

One of the goalscorers as the Chiefs humiliated Manchester City was Kaizer Motaung, a 23-year-old South African striker who went on to score 16 goals in 15 matches and be named as the league’s inaugural Rookie of the Year. As it turned out, Motaung’s goalscoring ability was just the beginning of his talents.

In between two spells in NASL…it was Motaung who launched Soweto’s iconic Kaizer Chiefs, named after the club where he had overcome a difficult settling-in period to enjoy such success in 1968. (They) came to life in 1970 and have enjoyed enormous success, racking up silverware seemingly for fun.

In the meantime, Motaung’s reach extended into South African industry and into football administration, including a position of power on the board of FIFA World Cup 2010, undoubtedly his country’s proudest football event. He also sits on the South African Football Association’s executive committee and the board of the Premier Soccer League.

Kaizer Chiefs FC continues to use a variation of the first Atlanta Chiefs logo to this day.  They in turn have inspired the name of a famous rock band known as – yes, the Kaiser Chiefs.  In addition, various versions of Atlanta Chiefs retro jerseys are available all over the Internet.  So the cultural influence rolls on…

Some may have doubts about the sensitive nature of naming a team after Native Americans.  (This became an issue for awhile in the 1990s around Atlanta’s own Braves baseball team.)  This is a valid concern, and it has been addressed in a previous post.  The long and short of it is this – “chief” is a word with many connotations.  Chief of StaffChief Executive Officer, and Commander in Chief are just a few examples of how this word is used in a broader context.  The word overall is positive and implies leadership qualities.  Not bad, assuming we would want our team to be “chiefs” of their league.

I’ll conclude with a quote from the IBWM article:

…in terms of collective impact, Atlanta Chiefs arguably had more than nearly any professional American side since World War II. Since Woosnam guided the Chiefs to their triumph in ’68, New York Cosmos and LA Galaxy have had a profound effect on soccer in the USA and its reputation abroad. But with Woosnam running NASL and later taking on a key marketing role at US Soccer and Motaung forming one of Africa’s best known clubs, the Chiefs’ global influence shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Amen to that, brother.  Let’s hope we see an Atlanta Chiefs FC back on the pitch sooner rather than later…