No matter what happens Thursday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Columbus, the inaugural season for Atlanta United has been remarkable.
But depending on what happens, this season can become completely unprecedented. Not only in MLS, where no expansion team has ever won a playoff game, but also here in Atlanta where sports seasons seem to exist in order for something inevitably terrible to ruin everything.
Before we take that deep psychological dive into the barren cavern that is the psyche of the Atlanta sports fan, lets start with MLS, and the fact that Atlanta United have conquered the league in under a year. The gold standard for both expansion success and fan support in American soccer has been Seattle. For seven straight years the fans of Seattle Sounders FC saw their team atop the attendance list.
Until this season when Atlanta took over at the top averaging over 48,000 per game. In fact, the 48K per that the Five Stripes averaged this season is the highest average attendance of any non-NFL team in American sports. Add to that the fact that United have twice broken the record for single-game attendance in MLS, and it’s pretty clear that the gauntlet has been thrown down by the soccer fans of this city.
The numbers and records are nice, no doubt, and certainly prove the popularity of this team. Now comes the opportunity to become the greatest expansion team ever.
With respect to both Chicago and Miami who made the MLS playoffs in 1998 as expansion teams, of the 12 teams in the league, eight made the playoffs. Seattle made the playoffs during their inaugural season in 2009 when MLS was a 15-team league. So just based on expansion, the fact that Atlanta United have made the post season in a 22-team league is already more impressive. What they now have to do is what Seattle failed to do: win a playoff game.
This isn’t just about trying to prove something to MLS however, it’s also about proving something to Atlanta.
We don’t have the time or the energy to run down the laundry list of reasons and examples of why the sports fans of this city fear the worst from every team, so for brevity and recency we’ll just say the Falcons lost to the Patriots Sunday while trying to avenge last February’s loss to the Patriots, the Hawks are four games into a rebuild (tank) three years after winning 60 games, and the Braves are Uncle Rico.
It would be so befitting of the “Atlanta Sports Narrative” for United to lose on Thursday night.
Let’s be honest, the most Atlanta way for this season to end would be for The Five Stripes to go up 2-0 before halftime, surrender the lead in the second half and lose 3-2 on a stoppage time own goal. Nothing about them says traditional or predictable however. And besides the fact that it says Atlanta on their shirts, nothing about them gives you any reason to expect them not to succeed.
And that’s why Atlanta United have to win. They’ve broken Seattle’s attendance records, they own dozens of other MLS records as well. They can become the first expansion team to win a playoff game on Thursday, but they can also break free from the narrative.
That’s the record that really needs to be broken.