ATLANTA (AP) — The MLS All-Star Game is more than the league showing off its best players against Italian powerhouse Juventus.
It’s a chance to flaunt one of its biggest success stories.
Atlanta United has shattered just about every MLS attendance record since joining the league in 2017, which made it a natural choice to host the All-Star Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Another mark could fall in tonight’s match, expected to lure upwards of 70,000 fans to this technological marvel of a stadium.
“That’s why the game is here,” said United defender Michael Parkhurst, one of five players from league-leading Atlanta picked for the MLS team. “It’s to showcase the city itself, the stadium, the atmosphere that we create here. It’s special.”
Indeed, there’s nothing unusual about drawing such a mammoth soccer crowd in Atlanta.
In its debut season, United shattered the league record by averaging 48,200 per game — more than doubling all but three other teams in MLS. The club is projected to go even higher this season, averaging nearly 52,000 through its first dozen home matches.
The top five individual game crowds in MLS history have all been in Atlanta, which has eclipsed 70,000 for every regular-season match in which the upper deck has been open . The target to beat for an All-Star Game is 70,728, which was the record turnout for the 2010 match at Houston’s NFL stadium.
If the weather forecast holds — there was a strong chance of thunderstorms — the camera lens-resembling roof will be closed to ensure a comfortable setting for both the players and the big crowd.
The complex structure only recently began operating properly, allowing it to open or close in less than 10 minutes .
Every other aspect of the $1.5 billion stadium has drawn rave reviews, setting it up to be one of the leading venues for the 2026 World Cup that will be largely hosted by the United States. The winning bid, which also includes Mexico and Canada, calls for six games to be held in Atlanta — including a semifinal.
The stadium has already developed quite a reputation in MLS, with its chanting, flag-waving fans showing off their passion while giving United a huge home-field edge.
“It’s surprising,” New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips said before a workout Tuesday at the stadium. “I heard a lot of talk before they came into the league about how it was going to be. I wasn’t sure, but playing here and watching them on TV, the support these players have is amazing.”
Since the current All-Star Game format was adopted in 2005, pitting a team of MLS stars against a prominent club from Europe, the American-based league holds a 7-6 edge.
Of course, this game means a lot more to MLS than it does to the opponent.
Juventus, which is riding a streak of seven straight titles in Serie A, is merely tuning up for a league season than begins in less than two weeks. The Italian club already played two exhibitions in the U.S. as part of the International Champions Cup — beating Germany’s Bayern Munich and Portugal’s Benfica — and has one more friendly Saturday against Real Madrid before returning to Europe.
Juventus didn’t bring along five-time FIFA Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo , acquired from Real Madrid a few weeks ago in a record transfer deal for a player older than 30.
Still recovering from the World Cup, Ronaldo remained in Italy to train, along with new teammates Gonzalo Higuain, Juan Cuadrado, Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala.
Manager Massimiliano Allegri is confident that his squad is ready to make another title run in Serie A.
“There isn’t much to do,” he said through a translator. “We have the defenders. We have the midfielders. It’s just a matter of deciding who are the two or three in front who are basically going to put the ball in the goal.”
The MLS team also will be missing one of its top players — LA Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who ranks second in the league with 15 goals.
The 36-year-old Swede chose to not to make the cross-country trip to Atlanta after playing three league matches over a nine-day span, saying he was more focused on leading his streaking team to the playoffs. Under league rules, he’ll also have to skip the Galaxy’s next match against Colorado on Saturday.
Commissioner Don Garber told reporters he was “disappointed” that Ibrahimovic would skip “the most important special event that the league has.”