Amid Losing Streak and Pandemic, Atlanta United Fans Remain Loyal
There was a time, not long ago, when Atlanta United was the lone beacon of hope in a city that often felt disappointed in its sports teams. In a decade marred by a crushing Super Bowl defeat, consistent postseason baseball woes, and a basketball franchise that rarely made waves, one thing became increasingly evident: Atlanta's soccer team was different.
"It's a community like no other," said longtime supporter Rebecca Horn. "I have made some amazing friends and felt like a part of something great."
Atlanta United broke the city's "sports curse" by finally capturing a championship this century when it took home the Major League Soccer trophy in 2018.
The team could do no wrong. The upstart captured the soul of the city and built one of the most rabid fan bases in American soccer history.
In a city known for fickle professional sports fans, Atlanta United packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium with sellout after sellout, setting multiple MLS attendance records. At times, more fans jammed inside the "Benz," as fans call the beloved dome, more than any soccer stadium in the world.
That difference was palpable. Only a year ago – which now seems like an eternity given everything that's happened since – you could go to the Benz during any given home game and watch the supporters section chanting, singing, and dousing each other with beer every time United scored a goal.
The place was euphoric, magical even.
Then came 2020. It's almost as if the wider societal struggles of 2020, a year of heartache and tragedy and one many just wish would go away, mirror the struggles of a team that seems lost on the pitch. Superstar Josef Martinez tore his ACL, ending his season in the team's first game. Head coach Frank de Boer stepped down after a disastrous tournament run earlier this summer. In the past several weeks, the team has either lost or tied.
The team now sits toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference and has scored just 11 goals in 11 games.
Horn, a member of the supporters group Resurgence, thinks this is a well-timed year of change.
"Unfortunately, it has been worse than I expected, but no team can be the best all the time," she said. "Everyone has rebuilding years, so it's probably best that this is ours."
The upside is the team's fanatical fans remain passionate. They may not be able to attend games, but they haven't gone anywhere.
Talk to any diehard fan and you'll hear a different story. The team is down, they say, but United isn't out.
Horn argued that the "minor league" nature of the league – where players are often tapped to play in larger, global leagues for millions of dollars – is going to add to frustration, but doesn't expect it to affect the bigger picture.
"Fans are going to gripe, of course, but true fans will still be glued to the screen and love the club in spite of the griping," she said.
Fellow fan Greg Thye also expressed hope.
"Atlanta, I think, is used to disappointing sports teams, but Atlanta United was a team that broke the mold and has been winning since the start," he said. "I think the city can hold out hope that the team will improve and be back to the top level of play they were at before the 2020 season soon enough."
Alex James is glad to see de Boer's departure and thinks it will be a turn for the better. He misses legendary coach Tata Martino who took the team to the championship with his uptempo style, but James is optimistic of what's next.
"Every bit of de Boer's success last season came from the structure and framework left over from Tata, and he coasted it out," he said. "It's evident the team had no faith in him now."
For now, Horn is still looking to the future.
"As far as the fan community, I would just like to see it expand," Horn said. "And come together even more as a unit to support our guys and our community."
Atlanta United is scheduled to play Inter Miami at 7 p.m. on Saturday.