The hope for Atlanta United fans is that the club’s 5th season of play will be a season that somewhat resembles what they, and we, have come to know as normal. And that’s to say nothing of what might happen in the stands, as the growing availability of COVID-19 vaccines appears to suggest that (maybe) a capacity crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium may not be too far off.
With the release of the 2021 MLS schedule on Wednesday, Atlanta’s fortunes on the field appear to be headed for an upswing after a disastrous 2020. The front office’s hiring of its 3rd full-time manager, Gabriel Heinze, marks a desire to return to a philosophy that saw it win MLS Cup in just its 2nd year to cap a successful 2-year stint for fellow Marcelo Bielsa disciple Tata Martino. Several offseason signings, coupled with late- or postseason ones from last year, look to fully integrate with the returnees. Also, Josef Martinez is back.
The big questions
What will attendance look like in 2021? Short answer: We don’t know yet, but will update you as soon as we do! Long answer: I’d expect that the season will begin with limited capacity at home—how limited depends on the club’s consultations with the Department of Public Health—with an announcement of the percentage of allowed capacity set to be made before long. I’d guess 25 percent (10,625 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium; 2,080 at Fifth Third Bank Stadium for CCL matches) would be a reasonable expectation, but we’ll see. We do know that the club is “targeting two matches utilizing all three levels of seating at Mercedes-Benz Stadium”: July 24 vs. Columbus Crew SC and LAFC on August 15; how many fans will be allowed to attend will obviously be based on COVID statistics, but the good news is that a large number of people will have been fully vaccinated by that point.
What’s BSSO and BSSE? And will I be able to watch? BSSO/BSSE is Bally Sports South and Bally Sports Southeast, the new name for FOX Sports South/Southeast. Despite owning the FOX Sports regional networks since late summer 2019, Sinclair Broadcast Group sold the naming rights to casino and gaming company Bally’s, to take effect on April 1. Aside from the new name, expect new graphics, music and more, but the good news is that Kevin Egan, Dan Gargan and Jillian Sakovits aren’t going anywhere.
As far as if you’ll be able to watch? That’s a different story. Despite being available via cable in the Atlanta area via Xfinity, Sinclair is still at an impasse with a number of over-the-top cable services regarding the coverage of its regional sports networks. That means if you subscribe to YouTube TV, Hulu, Sling TV or Fubo, you’re basically out of options (key word: basically). If you’re outside of the Atlanta market, ESPN+ is your option to watch the Five Stripes, along with all other out-of-market MLS matches.
BSS/BSSE will televise 20 matches, starting with the home opener against Chicago Fire FC on April 24. All other MLS matches will be nationally televised on ESPN (4), FS1 (3), Univision (3), ABC (2), UniMas (1) and big FOX (1). Univision and UniMas matches should be simulcast on Twitter in English as in prior years, with the English feed on Univision available on SAP.
Circle your calendars for...
Chicago Fire FC, home opener April 24 (8pm, Bally Sports South/Southeast). It won’t be the rollicking scene we’re used to at the Benz, but it will be good to have the team under the big roof for the first time. Hopefully it will be with a victory against Orlando and a spot in the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League sewn up. A Fire lineup led by double-digit goalscorer Robert Beric, meanwhile, will be out to reclaim a spot in the playoffs under 2nd-year coach Raphael Wicky after just barely missing out in 2020.
Nashville SC home May 29 (3:30pm, Bally Sports South/Southeast) and August 28 (3:30pm, Univision); away July 8 (8:30pm, Bally Sports South/Southeast). Atlanta United fans descended upon the Music City in large numbers to open the 2020 MLS season at Nissan Stadium, but Nashville fans haven’t had the chance to take in Mercedes-Benz Stadium due to the pandemic. And even though attendance is projected to be limited for the time being, this will make a nice away day for those that choose to make the trip. Team-wise, it will be interesting to see what Gary Smith’s side does after a debut season that saw them fall to eventual MLS champion Columbus Crew SC in the Eastern Conference semifinals, adding on veteran C.J. Sapong as well as youngster Rodrigo Piñeiro from Uruguay.
Orlando City away April 17 (3pm, UniMas; Twitter) and July 30 (8pm, ESPN); home September 10 (7pm, FS1). The league’s media partners understand the weight of the Atlanta/Orlando rivalry: all 3 of the clubs’ matchups in 2021 will be on national television. If last year wasn’t topsy-turvy enough, Orlando held the clear edge over the Five Stripes, picking up their first-ever win in the series on Aug. 29 and drawing them over the next 2 meetings before a 4-1 dismantling at Exploria Stadium on Oct. 28. And when the season ended, it was the Lions in the postseason for the first time before falling to New England in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Atlanta, namely Josef Martinez, will be out to make sure that 2020 was an aberration if they have any say in the matter, and if nothing else, it will be fun watching Martinez and Daryl Dike match wits in front of a national audience.
Columbus Crew SC home July 24 (3:30pm, ABC); away August 7 (7:30pm, Bally Sports South/Southeast). A showdown with Columbus means a showdown with former Atlanta man Darlington Nagbe, but it means silencing a potent attack that features Gyasi Zardes, Lucas Zelerayan and Pedro Santos. The scary part about the Crew is that they have no departures of note and, in fact, added some depth to its corps of forwards by bringing in MLS legend Bradley Wright-Phillips and to its midfield by signing veteran Kevin Molino. Caleb Porter and his troops will be dangerous once more and by all accounts should be chasing a repeat in a shiny new stadium. Bonus: Atlanta have announced that July 24 will be one of 2 possible matches (the 2nd being LAFC on August 15) during which all 3 levels of the Benz will be open, but it’s more likely that attendance will still be below capacity.