Through thick and thin: Atlanta United’s reign


Atlanta United FC and Mia Kirkwood

Setting their grounds as an official professional soccer club in 2017, Atlanta United FC graced the American playing field with a newfound passion. Within a year, the rookie team gained mass success and became a beloved club for Atlantans and soccer fans across the nation. As the club progresses, significant highs and lows burden the team as they continue to land their footing as a newer addition to the Major League Soccer (MLS) family.

Mia Kirkwood, Opinions Editor

America’s most popular sports tournament—the Super Bowl—held a massive attendance of around 67,000 in 2018. Although Super Bowl attendance usually overrides every other notable sports tourney in America, one sports tourney held in the capital of the southeast unexpectedly exceeded Super Bowl attendance. The final for the 2018 MLS Cup between soccer club Atlanta United and Portland Timbers garnered a whopping 73,000 fans at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium—the second-largest attendance in Major League Soccer (MLS) history. 

The booming of local Atlantans filled the Mercedes-Benz stadium December 8, as they cried along with a mix of English and Spanish soccer chants. Last seconds on the clock, thousands of fans stood wide-eyed within the futuristic multi-purpose coliseum as the Atlanta players jumped from the benches and ran onto the field. The central lights of the arena flashed in victory seconds after the infamous final whistle—rookie team Atlanta United won the MLS 2018 Cup 2-0, and everyone within miles of Atlanta celebrated in support of the five-striped squad. Within that exhilarating moment, the stereotype that Americans overlook soccer became evidently fallacious. This southern, Latin American culture-inspired team—Atlanta United—assembled a new outlook on the future of authentic American soccer.

“We [my family] are founding members and have had season tickets since the beginning [2017 season]… We are a soccer family, so it was a no-brainer that we would want to support them.  I think the interest and love for soccer were already growing [in America]. But, Atlanta United came along at the right time to give soccer fans a local team to get excited over,” history teacher Tamara Rankenburg said. 

From 2017 to 2019, Atlanta United maintained an enormous fanbase, primarily due to their authenticity and player technicality that abruptly blew down almost all teams in the eastern conference. Within the club’s first playing season, they held a rank of fourth place in the standings—an extremely high ranking for a newbie team. Atlanta fan culture quickly caught on to the hype; living in downtown Atlanta within the years of Atlanta United’s reign meant passing by black and red striped signs, banners and flags throughout the city. Most of the viewership influxes MLS received in the past sparked from significant player transfers from other professional leagues—such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 2018 transfer from Manchester United to LA Galaxy. This viewer inrush and Atlanta United’s rise to fame vary greatly: Atlanta United climbed the ladder of popularity purely from self-made players and the fan hype Atlanta citizens delivered, not from the help of notable Premier League transfers. 

“Atlanta United brought an energy for soccer nobody has ever seen before in America. I think that bringing the sport to a community that had never really seen soccer at that level really interested a lot of people like myself and excited us when we realized how good they actually were. They proved to America that our teams and fans can indeed compete with Europe and South America in soccer and somewhat created a newfound pride in American soccer and we saw that in this past year’s World Cup as well,” junior Nathaniel Jordan said. 

Atlanta United’s fall from success began toward the end of the 2019 season. Lack of leadership on the field, pitch formations that did not match the players’ abilities and strengths, injuries, and essential players transferring out of the club became extremely present as the team tried to continue their domination. Key player Miguel Almiron—also known by Atlantans as Miggy Smiles—transferred to Atlanta’s sister city club Newcastle FC in early 2019, a substantial loss for both the fans and the squad’s performance. In addition, star boy player Josef Martinez’s knee injury resulted in Atlanta United ranking 12 in the 2020 standings. After 2020, continuous injuries and the defective 3-4-3 formation put the team into a year filled with matches several spectators considered lacking critical playing style.

Beginning the 2023 year off with a sour taste, Atlanta United released multiple players, including club legend #7, now #17, Martinez. He stood as indubitably the Most Valuable Player (MVP) on the MLS pitch within the 2018 season, proving this true by succeeding in four championship trophies, scoring 111 goals and achieving three MVPs and six hat tricks in his Atlanta career. Martinez transferred to Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami—commonly known as Inter Miami FC—due to a contract buyout and continuous disagreements between the Venezuelan player and team management. As now a former goal-striking savior for golden spike enthusiasts, the loss of his playing career on the pitch could mean the end of times—or possibly a new era of new transfers and regrowth. Conflicting opinions ensue as fans discuss what these upsets could mean for the former champions.

“The corruptness of the front office is likely going to percent any success in the near future for [Atlanta] United, but only time will tell. They’re going to really have to restructure the whole organization and prove to the fans that they are still the same team. [Atlanta] United fans are becoming very frustrated and they were the driving force of that team; I really hope they can get back to that level, but in sports, everyone falls from the podium eventually. Overall, nothing will touch 2017 to 2019 Atlanta United but hopefully, in the next few years they can be on top again,” Jordan said. 

Through the thick and thin of the 2020-2022 seasons, fans seek relief in the upcoming seasons in the MLS Cup and Leagues Cup against MLS and Mexican Liga MX clubs. Atlanta United officially returns to the pitch with a friendly match January 28 against Chattanooga FC, but the true MLS season starts February 25 against the San Jose Earthquakes.