Not only will the new Atlanta United-owned USL team in Gwinnett County launch in 2018, but it will be one of a crop of existing and soon-to-launch USL teams in the South.
Probably the most notable one is Nashville SC, which might not be long for the league anyway and are all but a lock to be playing in MLS in 2020. North Carolina FC are leaving the tire fire that is the NASL and will play in the USL come spring. In 2019, the USL will expand by three more teams, two of them calling the South home (Memphis and Birmingham).
Those five (well, four minus Nashville) will already be joining a group of already-established teams in the region. (For the sake of this piece, I’m not counting Louisville or Austin as Southern markets.)
The existing clubs
Charleston Battery: Charleston, despite the affiliation agreement with Atlanta, were their own club with their own ambitions and were never going to end up being a long-term partner with United in the first place. That said, having been to MUSC Health Stadium, it’s a small, but intimate venue, located in one of the most beautiful cities in the world to boot. Plus, it’s not a terribly long drive from Atlanta (about 5 hours), so it’s worth your while to spend a day or two down there. I think this could develop into a fun little “mini-rivalry” so to speak, considering the role the Battery played during Atlanta United’s formation.
Charlotte Independence: My five years spent in Charlotte predates the Independence, who kicked off in 2015. One of the issues with the Independence is that they play in Matthews, a suburb in the southern part of town. That makes it a little difficult for people on the northern end of I-485 (their version of the Perimeter) on a weeknight, but it’s very accessible to a section of the region that’s grown rapidly. On top of that, their stadium, at 2,300, is among the smallest in the USL. For AU2 fans, it’s about a four hour drive, so it’s not terrible. Charlotte isn’t exactly a vacation destination, but Carowinds and the NASCAR Hall of Fame are there, if those strike your fancy.
Richmond Kickers: I’ve driven through Richmond a few times and haven’t gotten a huge read on the city, but the Kickers, like the Battery, have been around for a while. It’s a little more of a haul to get there at eight hours, so I’m not sure if proximity-wise we can count this as a potential rivalry.
The new kids on the block
Nashville SC, I think, will make a nice rival for Gwinnett. The problem is that it won’t be permanent; they are basically a shoo-in to be in MLS in 2020, after which we can look forward to a nice Nashville-Atlanta United first-team derby each season. I mentioned North Carolina FC already and that they will be entering the league from the NASL, but their derby partners will lie 2.5 hours outside of town in Charlotte.
Look to 2019, and the possibilities open up even further with Birmingham’s expansion team beginning play. Birmingham has the makings of a long-term natural rival: it will easily be the most accessible of the USL’s Southern core (it’s actually closer to Atlanta than Charlotte is to Raleigh-Durham), and according to our very own John Fuller (himself a Birmingham resident), although pro sports has swung and missed before there, the group behind the team has shown that they have a little idea of what they are doing.
Carlos Bocanegra said in his post-season press conference that Atlanta’s own USL team has been in the works for a while, and that the Charleston agreement was temporary with the club entering into its infancy. Having Charleston as a long-term partner would eventually prove to be more and more impractical given the distance between the two cities. Now with a full season of play under its belt, Atlanta is ready to take the next step in developing what hopefully will turn out to be a strong crop of players that can make an imprint on the first team in short order.