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The Remarkable Victory of Not Winning

After all the roads collapsed, Atlanta didn’t.


At 10:10 PM, Eastern Standard Time, the night before Atlanta United’s match against reigning MLS Champions, Seattle Sounders, the Governor of Georgia declared a state of emergency.

Obviously, it had nothing to do with soccer.

As I’m sure you know by now, at approximately 7:08 PM part of I-85 near Piedmont Road collapsed. Taken as seriously as possible, the collapse is and will continue to be a hobbling of a city’s infrastructure that was already walking on two termite-infested peg-legs. It will take months for the needed repairs to be made, and the normal flow of the city has been altered irrevocably. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Taken as lightly as possible, it was one of the most Atlanta things to ever Atlanta. After all of our sports teams got through doing their own version of collapsing in 2016, even the interstate—that god-forsaken hellscape of urban sprawl that is either packed with cars or packed with zombies--couldn’t take any more and rage quit.

As usual, there’s a really bad sports take to be had here.

The day after part of the city collapsed, Atlanta United put the soul of the city on its back and went the distance against the champs. Then a week later they were reeling against the leading contenders and fought back to secure a point.

In a certain sense, this take has some truth to it. The lineup we saw against Seattle was a makeshift bunch of rookies, old-timers, and upstarts with a particularly Atlantan arrogance, not to mention flair. They went into a city that dared to fashion itself a gem and gave them what for, bringing the defending Champs dangerously close to taking a knockout blow.

Likewise, in Toronto, Atlanta shuffled things around to become almost unrecognizable from the first weeks of the season. The major pieces were still there of course, but the absence of Josef Martinez pushed those pieces into new contexts, like the train ride home from a costume party. At one point, Tata played with three at the back in an attempt to weather the storm that was a Toronto team reborn via the return of Giovinco.

All of this, and yet the Five Stripes persevered for a city just now discovering the true nature of its wound.

On the other hand, this makes a soccer match out to be far more important than it really is.

Put better, it gives a soccer match the wrong kind of importance.

Takes like the “overcoming adversity for your city” take seem to think that sports are these life-or-death events that will profoundly affect the makeup of our lives for years to come. As if a sporting event were equivalent to graduation, marriage, divorce, or having a child (and so on). Even when we joke as if we treat sports this way, we are always speaking in half-truths. We don’t really live or die with every kick. We don’t really love our team more than the people that matter the most to us. A city cannot be carried by a sports team, as much as they’d like to try sometimes.

Atlanta United accomplished a great deal over the past two weeks and there is more accolades to be won in the weeks to come. It is not nothing that they went to Seattle with half the team jet-lagged to hell and kept the wheels from coming off. It was a hard fought point and proved that this backline is more than just your run of the mill MLS defense.

It is not nothing that this squad went into Toronto and faced the best player in MLS not wearing an ATLUTD shirt and got out with a point. Even more importantly, they did so after going down a goal early. More important still, they fought back to get things level by committing to their coach’s tactical vision, a coach who made a great in-game adjustment that gave ATLUTD the upper hand. EVEN MORE IMPORTANT, they held on after going down a man due to a controversial sending off.

Come away with a win at Montreal and Salt Lake and this nearly impossible opening stretch seems like just another bump in the road of an MLS Cup contender.

That’s the soccer side of things.

But to so many of us, I wonder if these two matches didn’t mean a great deal more, not because they were life-altering, championship game type moments, but because they were totally mundane.

That, I think, is how sports are important in the right way. They are one of those things that make up the deep and unspoken stability of the world we build with one another. Just one more “nothing” that doesn’t matter all that much to us, but turns out to be a crucial building-block in creating the big “something” that we all share together.

And when things as important as the road to get from point A or point B are collapsing around us, it is not nothing that a team we love twice went into matches it should lose but hung on for dear life until the final whistle blew. We, beautiful and broken things that we are, need that kind of stupidity in our life.

Sometimes it takes a draw to remind us of that, and for that I am thankful.

See you next week, Stripes.