(AS ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN CLAYTON DAILY NEWS ON 2/14/2019)
JONESBORO, GA — Atlanta reached the pinnacle of North American soccer last November when Atlanta United won the 2018 MLS cup.
Behind the star power of Josef Martinez, Atlanta has become a soccer town, setting attendance records at Mercedes Benz Stadium and building a whole nation of soccer fanatics. However, it was not the first championship for an Atlanta soccer team, the 1968 Atlanta Chiefs won the North American Soccer League Championship with a win over the San Diego Toros.
But it’s a little-known fact, those same Chiefs made their home in Clayton County for the 1970 season, when they set up shop at our own Tara Stadium.
By the end of the 1969 season, the Chiefs, who were owned by the Atlanta Braves and played their home games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium went looking for a new home because of the high cost to operate. Originally, it was thought that Dekalb Memorial Stadium would be the logical choice and both parties began negotiations.
In the end, DeKalb County told the Chiefs no, and the team’s leadership, led by Braves Executive Dick Cecil, found a willing host in Clayton County. At a press conference on February 5, 1970 with Cecil and Clayton County school superintendent J.E. Edmonds, the announcement was made. Cecil was quoted at the time, “Contrary to what you may have heard, the Chiefs aren’t gone with the wind, they’re moving to Tara,” in a play on the theme of the movie.
The 1970 team was coached by Vic Rouse from Swansea, Wales. Rouse was a goal-keeper on the original 1967 and was promoted to head coach for that season. The 1970 team led the league with 53 goals scored and featured three first-team NASL All-Stars in Uriel da Veiga, Dave Metchick and Art Welch. They competed in the Southern Division against that also included the Washington Darts and Dallas Tornado.
The first NASL game ever played at Tara was on April 11, 1970 against the St. Louis Stars in front of 5,317 fans. The account of the game in the Atlanta Constitution added, “The ones who got lost in the far reaches of Clayton County were still filing in at halftime. The Chiefs took a 2-0 lead early behind a penalty kick by Mike Ash and then a header by Graham Newton on a corner kick. The lead was short-lived, and the Chiefs eventually lost 4-2.
Big name international soccer players called Tara home that season, including Henry Largie who played for the Jamaican National Team and Nick Papadakis who played on Canada’s team. The team purposefully with a heavy international flavor.
Their overall record ended up 11-8-5 and the second-best record in the league but failed to qualify for the playoffs. They also two hosted two international games at Tara Stadium, Coventry City from England which drew a crowd of 6,773 and Hapoel Petah Tikva from Israel. Several players from this team were on the Israeli National Team that had just finished in the top 16 of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City.
In the end, it didn’t quite work out, the fans stopped making the drive to Tara and attendance dropped to an all-time low of 3,002 per game. The team moved back to Atlanta for the 1971 season and once again finished as league runner up, but after the 1973, the franchise was dissolved. For one exciting season, Clayton County was exposed to a professional sport that was still a bit ahead of its time in the south.