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MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls

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Expectations have finally arrived in Atlanta

Unburdened by the city’s past sporting failure, Atlanta United is poised for greatness ahead of MLS Cup.

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

For sports fans in Atlanta, expectations hardly exist. Atlanta is the plucky underdog. The highlight factory. The talented underachiever. What it is not, is a winner — at least it hasn’t been since Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves won the city’s lone championship in the midst of 14-straight division titles in the 1990s and 2000s.

That championship arrived in 1995. I remember it well, despite being an 8-year-old kid who’d only recently moved to Atlanta. When Marquis Grissom tracked a lazy fly ball to secure the final out in Game 6 against the Cleveland Indians, our watch party spontaneously darted outside to shoot fireworks. I smiled as they exploded in the moonlit sky. This, I learned, is what championships feel like.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC
Atlanta United’s fandom has taken on the swagger of the likes of Josef Martinez.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

I had no idea I’d spend the next 23 years chasing that feeling.

That October night remains the only time Atlantans have celebrated a major professional sports championship. Ever. There were no similar nights before or since. While I own that memory, it’s becoming harder to recall with each passing season, each passing year.

Atlanta United’s extraordinarily successful launch has been well chronicled and due to a host of factors. The marketing efforts, the digital production, the stadium, the business strategy, the players and coaches … on and on the reasons go. But Atlanta United feels fresh and exciting for locals because of a more intangible reason — there are finally expectations. Real championship expectations. Best-team-on-the-continent-level expectations. What’s even better is that the club — from the executives to players to support staff — don’t see expectations as a burden, they see them as an opportunity.

Perhaps this Atlanta United team benefits from the palpable desperation emanating from the terraces. Would fans be as emotionally invested if winning was considered routine? Perhaps what we assumed would hold Atlanta United back is exactly the fuel required to power this team through. I think we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Rather than accept failure as inevitable, maybe Atlanta United is driven by an express desire to change that narrative.

Heading into the MLS Eastern Conference Final against New York Red Bulls — a matchup between the two best regular-season teams in league history — the primary media narrative swirling around the tie was “who is the favorite?” Players and coaches could easily read the subtext behind the question: “Is the pressure on you or them?” Atlanta United’s captain Michael Parkhurst said something startling for an Atlantan to hear: “We expect ourselves to win.” It’s a statement so simple and pure that it can’t be misunderstood. Atlanta United doesn’t feel the weight of our expectations, because they expect excellence of themselves.

That sense of expectation — of success — is alluring for fans. Intoxicating, even. Atlanta United supporters are unabashedly drunk on it at this point — dominating league attendance records and social media narratives alike. Other fanbases detest them for their bullishness, but at this point, Atlanta fans are too calloused to care.

So much of sports fandom is rooted in tradition. The sport is a pastime that’s been handed down from generation to generation. The tradition and rituals unite fans in ways that are unapparent in their day-to-day lives. So how did Atlanta United go from a concept — a flyer passed around on street corners — to the league’s most valuable club and one that routinely outdraws its NFL parent in the same building? Atlantans craved a winner.

Did Atlantans love soccer before Atlanta United? Unequivocally yes, but the sport itself wasn’t the impetus for more than a million fans to walk through the turnstiles at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2018. A movement happened here. Atlanta fans didn’t so much fall in love with soccer as fall in love with Atlanta United. The pageantry of it, the affordability of it, the community of it — and above all — the success of it. These interests led the fans to soccer, and as it turns out, they think it’s pretty cool too.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC
This full-stadium tifo was quite unlike anything previously seen in MLS.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Five Stripes fans have been on a journey over the last several years, each having their own unique experience with the team. Some were the earliest on board, in attendance at the downtown announcement party in April 2014 when Don Garber handed a ball and scarf to team owner Arthur Blank. Some saw the team’s inaugural match when those pesky Red Bulls handed Atlanta a 2-1 loss — the most hype-building loss this city has ever seen. Some got the Atlanta United bug in the months to come as the team quickly rose to prominence in the city. No matter where these fans’ journeys started, they’re all united now, and they are expecting greatness.

Now, Atlanta United and its fans are on the doorstep of a historic opportunity to win the club’s first championship. It could even be the first time much of Atlanta’s young fan base will get to experience the thrill of running outside to shoot off fireworks.

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