The Meteoric Rise and Incredible Fall of Atlanta United FC

    Nothing could have prepared soccer-loving Atlantans for what would happen when their city was granted an expansion team in Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2017. Atlanta United FC may have only existed since 2014 and competed in North American soccer’s top flight for seven years, but it is fair to say the franchise’s supporters have been on a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions.


    Atlanta, Georgia, has a rich sporting history. The Atlanta Falcons play in the National Football League (NFL), the Atlanta Braves battle it out in Major League Baseball (MLB), and the Atlanta Hawks are part of the National Basketball Association (NBA). The city was crying out for a soccer team with Major League Soccer’s popularity soaring, and billionaire businessman Arthur Blank made it happen.


    Blank is best known for co-founding The Home Depot. With a net worth of $8.6 billion and a love of sports—he is also the owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons—Blank founded Atlanta United FC in 2014 as an MLS expansion team, the 22nd team in the league. The team was ready for its inaugural season by 2017. However, as MLS newcomers often struggle during their infancy, those sports betting in Georgia did not hold much hope for success; they were simply delighted to have a soccer team to support.


    Setting Attendance Records


    Any fears that Atlantans would not get behind the new soccer team were soon dispelled after the team broke several MLS attendance records during its debut season. Playing out of the Bobby Dodd Stadium, the home of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets football team, Atlanta United FC boasted a 55,297 attendance for its first-ever MLS regular season game, as the team lost 2-1 to the New York Red Bulls.


    Atlanta United FC moved stadiums midway through the 2017 MLS season, sharing the Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the Atlanta Falcons. By this stage, supporters had purchased more than 36,000 season tickets.


    Later that season, some 70,425 supporters watched the game against Orlando City SC, making Atlanta the first MLS team to surpass 70,000 in attendance. Amazingly, they broke the record again a month later when 71,874 turned out for the game against Toronto FC. The incredible support meant Atlanta finished with an average attendance of 48,200, beating several major clubs, including Chelsea and Everton of the English Premier League.


    Winning the Championship in Two Seasons


    Atlanta United FC finished fourth in the Eastern Conference during its debut season, making it only the third expansion franchise in MLS history to reach the MLS Cup Playoffs in its first season. Unfortunately, the team lost to Columbus Crew in the knockout round, ending its debut season prematurely.


    2018 was only Atlanta United FC’s second competitive season, but it was a year to remember. The team put in some incredible performances and ended the regular season with 21 wins, six draws, and only seven defeats from 34 games played. Atlanta finished with 69 points, enough for second place in the Eastern Conference, only two points behind the New York Red Bulls.


    Finishing second in the conference meant Atlanta received a bye in the MLS Cup Playoffs. In the semifinal, they faced New York City FC, beating the side from the Big Apple 4-1 over two legs. New York Red Bulls awaited Atlanta in the final, and the MLS newcomers made short work of them, brushing them aside 3-0 in the first leg and progressing 3-1 on aggregate.


    The Portland Timbers, the 2015 MLS Cup champions, headed to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the 2018 MLS Cup Final. An incredible turnout of 73,019 fans watched as Atlanta ran out 2-0 winners and lifted the coveted MLS Cup.


    Venezuela’s Josef Martinez was Atlanta’s star player in 2018. He scored 31 goals in 34 regular-season games, setting a new MLS record. With playoff games included, Martinez found the back of the net 35 times in 39 games.


    In 2019, head coach Gerardo Martino left the club and became the head honcho of the Mexico national team. Dutch star Frank de Boer took over at the helm and guided Atlanta to another second-place finish in the Eastern Conference and third-place overall. Atlanta lost in the Eastern Finals of the MLS Cup but did win another trophy, clinching the U.S. Open Cup.


    The Wheels Fall Off in Atlanta


    After two impressive back-to-back seasons, Atlanta United FC supporters were optimistic for the 2020 campaign. The team won its opening two fixtures before the MLS was suspended indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The MLS resumed four months later with a bracket-style format dubbed “MLS is Back.” Three straight 1-0 defeats saw Atlanta eliminated, and de Boer lost his job.


    Stephen Glass took over as head coach; he had been working as the Atlanta United 2 manager. Glass was out of his depth and only enjoyed four victories from the 21 games he was in charge. Atlanta finished a disappointing 12th out of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference and 23rd out of 25 overall.


    Former Paris St. Germain, Manchester United, and Real Madrid defender Gabriel Heinze became the Atlanta head coach for the 2021 MLS season, but he only lasted 13 games. Heinze recorded two wins, seven draws, and four defeats during his brief stint at the club.


    Rob Valentino took over as head coach and lost two of his first four games in charge. However, he rallied the troops and won nine of his next 12 games, as Atlanta finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and eighth overall.


    The 2022 MLS season was another disappointing campaign, with Atlanta only managing 11th place in their conference and 23rd overall. Improvements were made in 2023, with the well-supported club finishing sixth in the East and 10th overall.


    What Lies in Store For Atlanta United FC?


    After five games of the 2024 MLS regular season, Atlanta has won three and lost two. It is early days, but the team looks more solid defensively, while Greek striker Georgios Giakoumakis is banging in the goals.


    Atlanta supporters have been on a rollercoaster of emotions, from reaching the dizzy heights of becoming MLS Cup champions within two seasons to being defeated week in, week out in the space of a few short years.

    Regardless of where Atlanta finishes this season, you can bet your bottom dollar that the team’s supporters will turn out in droves. Those fans will be hopeful their team can perform and be worthy of that incredible support.

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