By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jun 27, 2018) US Soccer Players - Atlanta United is already a phenomenon in MLS. There’s no need to look further than the club’s remarkable attendance numbers for proof of just how successful the second-year club had been in the South’s largest city. A town that once seemed like a risky proposition has become the best professional soccer market in America, and it’s not a close race.
Judging by the MLS All-Star Fan XI voting, Atlanta has the best team in the league by miles as well. The fans driving the success of the team in the stands is the most engaged in the league, also by miles. Six players from Atlanta United made the All-Star Fan XI for the August 1 game at United’s home venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Italian powerhouse Juventus is set to visit the Peach State, serving as the latest big European club to take up MLS on the summer exhibition offer.
There’s every reason to expect that the building will be full and the event “successful” by the metrics the league uses to judge them. It could very well become the best All-Star Game in MLS history, at least off-the-field. Maybe no All-Star Game during the visiting foreign club era will have featured a crowd so decidedly on the side of the MLS All-Stars.
Atlanta United fans want to see Atlanta United players on the field for the All-Star Game. That much makes sense and somewhat explains votes for the likes of Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe, Josef Martinez, Michael Parkhurst, and Brad Guzan. If any fan base had the motivation to stack the XI, it was Atlanta’s.
But the Five Stripes wave is something of a double-edged sword for the league. Highlighting the reach and popularity of Atlanta United will paint MLS expansion efforts in a good light, perhaps even helping to spread the league’s message to potential bidders for the next round of growth. What professional soccer investor, the modern kind, for whom net worth measures in ten figures, wouldn’t get wide-eyed at what Atlanta has managed to do under Arthur Blank’s leadership?
Then again, is an All-Star tilted so heavily towards one team really a showcase of what MLS as a whole has to offer? If so many votes going Atlanta’s way means that Atlanta United is enjoying amazing popularity, then it must also mean that the fans of 22 other teams aren’t nearly as engaged.
What does it say about MLS in places like Colorado, San Jose, Chicago and even Kansas City that the sum total of their representation on the Fan XI is a single player? Good for Graham Zusi to break into a group dominated by Atlanta United players, LAFC players, the reigning MLS MVP Diego Valeri, and one of the most famous players on the planet in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but that’s not a great look for MLS.
MLS has made a habit of chasing the Next Big Thing over the last decade. To be fair, it has largely served the League well. The decision to expand to Seattle proved inspired back in 2009. The Sounders historic expansion launch simmered into legitimate longevity as an elite club, with 40,000 fans regularly showing up to support their team. The buzz isn’t as strong as it once was, but there’s no way to paint Seattle’s current reality as a failure.
Portland is one of the hits, without any doubt. There's plenty of doubt in places like Vancouver, Montreal, and Philadelphia.
A Seattle-like burn-in is what MLS is surely hoping happens in Atlanta. And in Orlando and the Bronx, as well. It’s what the long-term goal will be for Nashville and Cincinnati, two cities looking to have spectacular openings amidst electric soccer excitement. Miami is more of a question.
Launching in the MLS 3.0 has advantages that presage some chance of catching the public’s imagination in meaningful ways. Teams with longer histories aren’t so lucky.
The pertinent question about things like All-Star voting is simple. Is it relevant across the league's cities? It’s not fair to expect fans of a mediocre-to-poor team to vote in one of their own. Still, there are many clubs not represented in the Fan XI who are competitive.
A season of struggle may explain the lack of any Seattle players. The fans are still there, but their enthusiasm is understandably low. It doesn't explain the absence of players from the New York Red Bulls, NYCFC, FC Dallas, or Real Salt Lake. The Crew gets a pass for a different reason. It’s in the eye of the beholder if Vancouver, New England, or any team lingering below the playoff line should be pushing players into the Fan XI.
MLS is still far from established as an integral part of the sports landscape in the growing number of cities it claims. For all the history, sometimes strange history in some cases, but history nonetheless, that MLS can point to in places like DC, Chicago, Colorado, New England, and elsewhere. In none of those places is the local MLS team part of the essential fabric of the sports calendar. That played out to the ire of DC United fans when the District decided to ignore their MLS Cups in playing up a trophyless streak that "ended" earlier this month.
Those MLS teams still linger around the edges. That's evident in the way a popularity contest that dictates the first eleven names on the MLS All-Star Game roster went down in 2018. Maybe the All-Star Game is stale to everyone but the new kids. MLS doesn’t look inclined to kill the exhibition anytime soon. We may be looking at many more years where the newest clubs dominate the voting as long as MLS gives fans the power to select a Fan XI.
Atlanta deserves all the praise. Fans of Atlanta United have outshone even the rosiest predictions. It would be churlish to be negative about the club’s hold on its popularity in the city before more than few years have passed. The club and its fans haven’t done anything wrong. In fact, Atlanta United may be on its way to becoming the first MLS team truly relevant, meaning places on equal footing, with teams from the Big Four professional sports leagues in a major MLS market.
By shining so brightly, Atlanta places much of the rest of the league in stark contrast to its success. MLS can ride the wave of expansion zeal, but it can’t deny that there are places around the country where there’s not much zeal at all for the MLS All-Star Game... and perhaps MLS itself.
More From Jason Davis:
- Orlando City and the MLS coaching game
- Reopening the US Open Cup
- MLS at the 2018 World Cup break
- It's seldom easy for NYCFC
(Photo courtesy of Atlanta United)