Atlanta United starting their history in style by qualifying for the MLS Cup playoffs in their inaugural season.
It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? What better way for a club to get off on the right foot than with immediate success finishing in the top half of their conference. Fans will be caught up in the playoff atmosphere, season ticket sales for 2018 will remain steady, and the club will make it's mark on the Atlanta sports scene.
Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen and you should be ready for it.
Let’s take a quick look at how expansion (or "new") teams have done in Major League Soccer:
• Chicago Fire: 1998, MLS Cup Champions
• Miami Fusion: 1998, Conference Semi-finals
• Chivas USA: 2005, DNQ
• Real Salt Lake: 2005, DNQ
• Houston Dynamo*: 2006, MLS Cup Champions (existing players and head coach relocated from San Jose after failing to secure soccer stadium)
• Toronto FC: 2007, DNQ
• San Jose Earthquakes*: 2008, DNQ (Returned after original club owned by AEG moved to Houston)
• Seattle Sounders: 2009, Conference Semi-finals
• Philadelphia Union: 2010, DNQ
• Portland Timbers: 2011, DNQ
• Vancouver Whitecaps: 2011, DNQ
• Montreal Impact: 2012, DNQ
• New York City FC: 2015, DNQ
• Orlando City SC: 2015, DNQ
The last team to make the playoffs in their first year is the Seattle Sounders. Before that it was ten (eleven when Atlanta United plays its inaugural season) years ago with the Houston Dynamo who weren’t technically an expansion team, but instead an entire team that relocated to another city. Excluding Houston, only three out of 13 expansion teams have ever made the playoffs in their first season, and two of those happened during the Wild West Days of MLS all the way back in 1998.
And unfortunately for Atlanta United, it’s gotten even more difficult to make the playoffs. Currently six teams in each conference make the playoffs, and it’s tough imagining that an expansion club (most likely starting their season in the hole after an impossibly long road trip) will be better than five established teams in the Eastern Conference.
I’m not rooting for the Black and Gold to miss the playoffs and would be delighted if they proved me wrong after assembling a top squad through the expansion draft, their new Academy, and various other player acquisition mechanisms. However, recent history and current trends are stacked against the club.
Go into next season with low expectations and maybe the team will surprise you. But don’t write off or stop supporting Atlanta United if they don’t make the playoffs in year one. Nobody expects them to and you shouldn’t either.