ATLANTA — Nobody doubts Mercedes Benz Stadium is ready for Sunday's soccer debut. Everyone agrees it's a beautiful facility. Atlanta United home games will definitely run smoother than they did at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the temporary home of the expansion team.
There is not the absence of worry, though, as Atlanta moves from an intimate venue built much closer to turn of the 19th century than the 20th, into a modern mega-structure that will show each play in detail on its video boards but may lack the character and atmosphere of a smaller stadium. More significantly, for Atlanta United coach Tata Martino, is the change from a grass field to the FieldTurf preferred by NFL teams.
"I have the logical worries you’d have after playing seven months in one stadium and now having the change to another," Martino said after the team trained in the venue Friday. "Not about the aesthetic or the things around the stadium, but, yes, about the field. It’s a substantial difference going from a natural field to an artificial one."
Atlanta United hopes any concerns about atmosphere will be erased Sunday, when the team faces FC Dallas in a nationally televised contest. The venue will use curtains to lower the seating capacity and create a more cozy feel.
After seeing how the city welcomed the team, the players aren't worried about how the fans will respond to a change of venue. In fact, while the curtains may be a fixture, the team already plans to have them raised for next weekend's match against rival Orlando City in an effort to sell out the stadium and break the league's all-time attendance record of 69,255.
"The people here will make this stadium as crazy as possible. If anyone has ever seen an Atlanta United game at Bobby Dodd, they’ve been waiting to surpass what was expected there," defender Greg Garza said. "I think they’ll definitely get their money’s worth. The people will make it a wonderful atmosphere and that also helps us on the field. In this league, it’s crazy how different you play at home than you do away. That’s one thing that’s really stuck out in my mind."
To that end, Atlanta has to do its job at The Benz. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan said the biggest key to making the new stadium feel like home is simply getting results.
"To make this place a fortress. To make this month a good month for us we have to win games. We know that," he said.
The turf surface will be different, but it also can be an advantage. Martino hopes his players can make it their own.
"It’s our turf. We’ve already played on other turf fields and we’ve adjusted without difficulty. I think we’ve played in Seattle on turf, in Portland on turf and we didn’t have any problems. But this is ours. We’re going to play here Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, next Tuesday and so we have to adapt as quickly as possible but without changing anything at all about our style of play."
The former Argentina coach knew when he came to the league that artificial fields were a factor. Some players, even beyond his MLS veterans, are used to playing on turf and the club's training facility has half natural grass fields, while the other half is made up of the same material that sits in the downtown stadium.
Even so, Atlanta United has trained just twice in Mercedes Benz Stadium, meaning they'll have been in the venue just twice, though that's two times more than Sunday's opponent FCD, who trained Saturday on the turf fields at the training facility to figure out how the ball will bounce.
"It is what it is. I was in Tijuana on an artificial surface for nearly five years. It’s a little different football," Garza said. "We expect it to be a little faster. The ball bounces differently. They’re little details, but we can’t deny they’re there. They’re things that change when you go from a grass surface to an artificial one. But both teams are playing on the same field and we have to start taking advantage of being at home."
The back-loaded schedule means an enormous opportunity for The Five Stripes to lock down a playoff spot. Currently sitting in the Eastern Conference's sixth and final spot, Sunday kicks off a stretch of six consecutive home games for Martino's men. While the coach isn't entirely sure how the field will play, he has no doubts about the fans' enthusiasm in the new venue.
"We’re absolutely sure they’re going to be the 12th man," he said.