Can Atlanta United do what the city’s other big league franchises haven’t?

Sports can bring us together, literally. But the key to this alchemy is winning.
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Atlanta United FC

Illustration by Ryan Inzana

Atlanta is a sports town, just not a unified one. I know passionate fans of the Braves and Bulldogs, but also Lakers lovers, Phillies fanatics, Alabama die-hards, and Chelsea hooligans. Atlantans come from all over and bring their exotic sporting allegiances with them. (I even know a fan of the Moose Jaw Warriors, an ice hockey team in Saskatchewan.) Some of these relationships might be challenged or even co-opted by local teams—as seems to happen in other transplant-filled cities, like New York and Chicago—if not for our shameful history of professional sports failures.

Sports can bring us together, literally. But the key to this alchemy is winning. We’ve had pro basketball, baseball, and football teams here for more than a half-century—we had hockey, too, but that didn’t last—and come away with just a single championship. (Braves, 1995.) Now that the Cleveland Cavaliers have won an NBA title, we are America’s most championship-starved sports town, having endured 76 consecutive seasons since our single, sad, lonely title. (Insert Super Bowl LI snark here.)

Now we’ve got a brand-new Major League Soccer team moving in: the lazily named Atlanta United. (There’s already Manchester United, as well as the D.C. United and Minnesota United, in the MLS.) Our United have hired an outstanding coach—Gerardo “Tata” Martino—who, one imagines, will be happy working for the team’s deep-pocketed owner, Arthur Blank. Blank, in turn, can leverage his Falcons front office to efficiently support the team. But, at the end of the day, can the United unite us?

There’s more than enough local interest in soccer to support an MLS franchise here—even to fill the 29,000 lower deck capacity at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Ten times that many watched each MLS game on TV last season, the most ever.) There’s recreational soccer played every night, until almost midnight, at Silverbacks Park near Embry Hills. Some football fans here are devotees of the English Premier League, the best football league on earth. Others—the majority of soccer people in Atlanta, I think—have played the game, or watched their kids play it, and would simply enjoy watching a familiar game played at a high level.

I don’t run in soccer-obsessed circles, but I know a dozen people who’ve purchased season tickets for the United’s first. Some were let down by our former minor league soccer team, the Silverbacks, who—without much media coverage or investment—ended up perpetuating two dubious conclusions: that soccer can’t thrive here and that Atlanta teams will always let us down. If the United can win—and Blank will have to take some checkbook hits to make that happen—we will see sports do what it can do best: remind us that whether we live in a cavernous mansion on West Paces Ferry or a cramped apartment in Clarkston, we all get a chill when the announcer yells, GOOOOOAAAAAALLLLL!

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.

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