The parade ended, as it should, with a party. The vehicles carrying Atlanta United players and officials rolled slowly through downtown streets celebrating their MLS championship with fans, then met a few thousand of them outside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It was part celebration, part admonition.
United reveled in winning the MLS Cup in their second season of play. They feted a city rejoicing in its third championship in a major pro sports league.
They also rebuked those skeptics who wondered if soccer can make it here. They defended a city with a reputation for lukewarmly embracing its teams.
Fans cheered when United president Darren Eales called out “all the doubters and haters who said Atlanta is not a sports town.” They did the same when United hype man/rapper Archie Eversole dissed “all the non-believers that said this ain’t no soccer town.”
United owner Arthur Blank took the stage and said Atlanta is a “great city, a great sports city.”
“And now we know it’s a great championship city,” Blank said.
I understand getting caught up in the revelry, but let’s slow down.
Three major pro sports titles since 1968 (RIP Atlanta Chiefs) doesn’t make for a great championship city. The Hawks are far away from winning their first title and the Braves are more than 20 years removed from the one that should have been many.
Atlanta is not a great sports city. Fine by me if that’s not among our ambitions. Then we can stop using tax dollars to subsidize stadiums for Blank and other billionaires.
I don’t know what it means to be a “soccer town” but, no disrespect to United’s achievement, I don’t think that fits Atlanta, either. If we’re talking sports, college football is king.
Atlanta also is an event town, and United are a good show, as reflected by their attendance records. United are hot right now but they won’t ever be as popular as Georgia/SEC football, which is a high bar to clear. They will have moments, like this one, when they are bigger than the Braves.
But kudos to United for converting fans of the sport into fans of their team, which the Hawks know isn’t easy. United’s bandwagon is a fun place to be. Its members include Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who told Monday’s crowd: “I know like so many of you all, before Atlanta United came to Atlanta, you had never watched a professional match before.”
The mayor apparently is unaware of the people who were soccer fans before they were United supporters. But United fans didn’t seem to mind Bottoms’ latecomer status. They enthusiastically joined in when the mayor started an Atlanta United chant.
That’s what the parade and party were about: fans cheering the champions, and the champions cheering the fans.
“This championship is something that’s ours, and something that’s yours,” United captain Michael Parkhurst told them.
The crowd outside the dome for the celebration was a fraction of those that regularly file into it for United matches. That’s no knock because United’s average attendance this season was nearly 53,002, beating the U.S. soccer record they set during their first season. The MLS Cup crowd of 73,019 for their victory over Portland Saturday set another record.
The smaller crowd in the wet and cold had the same energy as the larger ones in the warm and dry dome. People waved United’s flags and sang its songs. United’s golden spike made an appearance on the stage to be hammered by coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino as fans chanted “A-T-L.”
The golden spike tradition (as much as anything less than three years old can be called that) is part of what makes United fun. The team’s high-scoring style of play helps, too. With United you get lots of goals, lots of partying and lots of victories.
In some ways, United are like Atlanta. They aren’t transplants, exactly, because they came from nowhere — Blank paid an expansion fee to birth them — but they are newcomers.
Like many of the city’s new arrivals, United’s players are racially diverse and from all over. The franchise is young. The crowd at the celebration was young and diverse, too.
United became popular fast but it wasn’t a sure thing. When MLS awarded the franchise, Blank said the team could close off the stadium’s top section with curtains to make it more suitable for the smaller soccer crowds.
Now United packs them in as his Falcons flail.
“I especially compliment Arthur Blank and his team for having the foresight when building the stadium to make it large enough to accommodate soccer,” Governor Nathan Deal quipped.
Everything is pointing up for United. That’s why it’s somewhat strange that, even at the height of success, the team and its fans still seem concerned about answering the doubters.
I suppose that’s part of the deal for a new team playing association football in an American football city. The sport is always fighting for respect on two fronts. There are American sports fans who dismiss soccer, and world soccer fans who dismiss MLS.
I say United should stop worrying about those people. United are fun, they are popular, and they are champions.
“Our streets, our club!” Eversole shouted from the stage on Monday. “This is Atlanta!”