* Moleka does have a job to do, and many people are trying to get his attention. He’s the executive director of soccer for the United Futbol Academy, the biggest travel soccer program in Forsyth County and one of the most successful in the country.
* It’s easy to argue that there has never been more excitement for soccer in the history of Atlanta. What remains to be seen is how far forward it can carry the sport in Forsyth County.
* Bill Kaloudis, whose son, Christopher, plays for UFA, says his family now has a local outlet for its voracious soccer consumption, which in the past was largely focused on European leagues and international competitions like the Copa America Centenario.
About this article
This article was originally published in the May 2017 issue of 400-The Life, a publication of the Forsyth County News. To read the entire magazine, click here.
The atmosphere around the north end of Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium on a Saturday in early March feels fit for an ACC home game.
But there’s a different, more festive energy to it, more scarves than bow ties, more salsa music than fight songs. There’s plenty of gold, but also red and black. There are more people coming – a sellout, for the second week in a row – than have come for any American football game since 2015.
“I’m in heaven,” Iggy Moleka says.
He said that on Friday, but the next afternoon, Moleka flits around the crowds gathered before the second home game in Atlanta United’s history. The first one, against the New York Red Bulls, ended in a fashion familiar to the city’s sports fans, an early 1-0 lead turning into a 2-1 loss after two Red Bulls goals in the last 14 minutes of regulation. But they’re back, perhaps spurred by a 6-1 road blowout of Minnesota United in the following game, or maybe just by the general excitement of having a Major League Soccer team in Atlanta for the first time ever.
Moleka does have a job to do, and many people are trying to get his attention. He’s the executive director of soccer for the United Futbol Academy, the biggest travel soccer program in Forsyth County and one of the most successful in the country.
Around 40 of his players are gathered, waiting for Atlanta United’s squad to arrive. They wear their club jerseys, red with stripes on the side, “UNITED” on the back and a Dunkin’ Donuts logo on the front. When the players step off the bus, the UFA contingent forms a high-five line, greeting them as they head to the locker room.
“I never want to wash my hands again,” says Austin Bender, 11, afterwards.
It’s easy to argue that there has never been more excitement for soccer in the history of Atlanta. What remains to be seen is how far forward it can carry the sport in Forsyth County.
“It doesn't impact what we do, but it helps what we do,” Moleka says. “Because now we're teaching our kids a way to play soccer and we can tell them, ‘Hey, you know what? We have a professional team in town. You need to go and watch them execute what we teach you.’”
Atlanta had a professional soccer team before Atlanta United: the Ruckus, which later became the Silverbacks. But that team played in lower leagues with far smaller crowds and less exposure than what Atlanta United has garnered.
It was the Silverbacks that brought Moleka to Atlanta. The native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo grew up in Belgium, played college soccer at Florida International University and came back to the United States after a stint playing professionally in Japan. Moleka’s playing career ended in 2001 when he had his first daughter, and in 2003, Moleka and his brother, Deo, started a club called Atlanta Soccer Academy in Forsyth County.
United Futbol Academy in Forsyth County took its present form in 2010, when ASA merged with Forsyth Fusion, a club led by Jose ‘Gaucho’ Pinho and Don Schultz. The club has added branches in Norcross, Lawrenceville and many other Georgia cities – as well as one in Baltimore – but the one in Forsyth County is the biggest.
The club had humble beginnings, using a field at a school in Alpharetta and a couple fields at churches in Forsyth County. It gained access to county fields in 2008 and now has a large swath of territory at Fowler Park for use, with club banners draped over the surrounding fence.
UFA has grown through its mergers and through the overall population growth in Forsyth County. Two high schools – Lambert and West Forsyth – have opened since the club was established, and both have grown competitive soccer programs stocked with Division I-level talent. Much of UFA’s growth has been organic: Parents talk, children in town for games and tournaments draw attention, and word of the club’s resources and success has spread.
“(Players) are wearing their UFA uniform into their high school when they go to school,” Moleka says. “So that's the biggest promotion you can have.”
In terms of overall popularity in the county and region, soccer is still behind football, baseball and basketball. But parents of UFA players are impressed with the size of the scene in the county and the resources the club offers.
“I didn’t expect to see such a big club,” says Kevin Schukowski, whose 8-year-old son plays for UFA.
Schukowski is from Germany, where soccer is clearly the top sport. The scene there, he says, is composed of many small clubs representing towns rather than the large clubs with wide geographical reaches seen in the U.S., which reduces travel demands.
But Schukowski still feels fully immersed in soccer: practice three times a week, events on the weekends and tournaments for his son’s threeon-three team “all the time.”
“I’m living in a soccer community,” Schukowski says. “So to me, it feels as (if) soccer was No. 1.”
For those whose lives are largely defined by soccer, Atlanta United is filling a void in the city’s sports scene, and some of the club’s players can be included in that group. Defender Mark Bloom, a Marietta native acquired from Toronto F.C. in a trade, gravitated toward other local teams growing up, but the MLS was largely lost on him. His father, Neal, coached at Lassiter High School, so Mark would look up to the players there.
“Imagine growing up idolizing hometown soccer players, professional soccer players,” he says. “It’s just on a different level.”
“I would have loved to have that growing up,” says goalkeeper Alec Kann, a Decatur native. “It just kind of fosters a soccer culture for the city that has kind of been flying under the radar for years and years.”
Bill Kaloudis, whose son, Christopher, plays for UFA, says his family now has a local outlet for its voracious soccer consumption, which in the past was largely focused on European leagues and international competitions like the Copa America Centenario.
“I think it was one of those big things that was missing from the city, and for us … soccer is a religion,” Kalousdis says. “Our weekends are here, and we can’t wait for the [new] stadium to open.”
With the higher level of play, national exposure and sellout crowds, it’s clear that Atlanta United is on a different level than the Silverbacks – the MLS club is a team that kids are already dreaming of playing for.
UFA is taking steps to help that happen. Atlanta United, like every MLS team, has a development academy that focuses on developing local players to the level of first team contributors, and UFA has partnered with the academy to give particularly gifted players the opportunity the move through the ranks of their hometown club.
“The MLS clubs … will provide those kids with certain things that a youth club itself cannot provide,” Moleka says. “We don’t have all the infrastructure they have. We don’t have all the money. We don’t have all the staff available.”
So there isn’t just an MLS team for local players to watch and try to emulate – there’s a pipeline in place to get them there in a quicker, more direct fashion than could ever happen with the Braves, Hawks or Falcons. UFA has already contributed what Moleka estimates to be 15 players to Atlanta United’s academy, and current players say that they’re seeing more scouts at games.
Atlanta United’s pregame pump-up festivities are heavy on railroad imagery, drawing on the confluence of freight lines that helped make the city a major metropolis. Before the game, an oversized golden spike is “hammered in” – before the match against Chicago, rapper Rich Homie Quan swung the ceremonial hammer.
Fulton County’s railroads run through every neighboring county – except Forsyth. The reach of Atlanta United, however, doesn’t make that omission, and the effect has been clearly felt. Kevin Schukowski certainly thinks so, as he stands in the midst of a hectic pregame scene before a sold-out game at a football stadium that, surprisingly enough, isn’t football. (At least not the American kind.)
“I think," he says "something is changing, yeah.”