The popularity of soccer in the United States has grown slowly over time, but the arrival of the professional soccer team Atlanta United FC this year has given the sport a sudden boost of new energy locally.
Atlanta United has been regularly packing Bobby Dodd Stadium to its 55,000-person capacity, which is serving as the team’s temporary home before a planned move to Mercedes Benz Stadium, and team flags can be seen hanging outside homes around the city.
However, back in 2015 the team had a deal to move into DeKalb County, which ultimately fell through. The team abandoned plans to build a $35 million, 41-acre soccer complex off Memorial Drive, citing preparation costs as the main reason that the site was not a viable location.
The history of soccer in Atlanta and in DeKalb County goes much further back than Atlanta United, with its roots in the granite quarry industry, according to Patrick Sullivan, an architectural historian in Stone Mountain.
“DeKalb has such a long history with soccer going back to the 1880s, but is the forefront of modern soccer locally, too with the Atlanta United complex almost being built here and many of the immigrant population in Clarkston playing,” Sullivan said. “And soccer’s connections to DeKalb and the region go much deeper than we thought.”
Sullivan works as a historian with New South Associates in Stone Mountain, but over the past two years embarked on a personal passion project to discover the history of soccer in Atlanta.
After reading several books on the lost history of soccer in the states, Sullivan said his interest was piqued.
“When it was announced Atlanta was getting a new professional team, as a historian I started looking through digitized records of newspapers and the constitution to see if Atlanta had any soccer history prior to the Chiefs back in the late 60’s,” he said.
What Sullivan found were records of organized league play dating back to 1908, and even earlier records to play from around 1892, when immigrant English, Scottish and Welsh stonecutters brought the sport over as they arrived in Georgia.
As the granite industry started up in the 1880s, Sullivan said these immigrant workers were locating near Stone Mountain and Arabia Mountain in Lithonia, working as block cutters.
“The earliest reference I could find to a soccer game being played was in 1892,” Sullivan said. “This tells me these immigrants were playing soccer in-and-around Stone Mountain and Lithonia as early as the 1880s, just casually.”
League play began later, just after 1900 and up until World War I, when many of the players enlisted in the military, he said.
During that time, from about 1908 until 1914 when the war started, Lithonia formed an Atlanta All-Stars team, playing other teams from areas like Chattanooga and Birmingham.
In 1913, a four-team league began, including Lithonia, Stone Mountain, the Atlanta Soccer club and a team representing the former Foote and Davies publishing company. Lithonia took home first place in the league’s 1914 cup, Sullivan said.
During the war, Sullivan said what happened in Georgia was consistent with what was happening across the country, with soccer dying off again as the primarily British players either returned to their countries or fought in the war.
Then, in 1921 play resumed, with teams re-forming in the same areas and even expanded further outside of Atlanta.
Sullivan also contacted a number of the family members of former players in those early leagues.
“Looking through some of these old paper accounts, you only get last names,” he said. “I wanted to find out who these guys were.”
Sullivan found a few local players who fought and died in the war or returned injured, such as a goalkeeper, Thomas Scott from Scotland, who lost a leg in combat.
Richard Jones and William T. Jones, unrelated were both Welsh immigrants who located in Lithonia. Sullivan spoke to some of their relatives and found out more about them, he said.
“These guys were the centerpieces of the Lithonia team and played for quite some time, before and after the war” he said.
Sullivan will be the guest speaker at the DeKalb History Center’s upcoming Lunch & Learn event, "The Best in this Section: Lithonia, the DeKalb Granite Industry, and Metro Atlanta’s Early Soccer History." The event will be held May 16 from noon to 1 p.m. on the second floor of the old Decatur courthouse, 101 E. Court Square.
“I feel this is a very fascinating part of DeKalb's cultural history that I am eager to learn about,” said Fred Mobley, archivist for the history center. “I do think it should be a very informative and entertaining Lunch & Learn.”
The event is free and attendees are encouraged to bring their own lunch.