Voices: Sam Jones

Atlanta United vs. Charlotte FC: The start of a rivalry?

If you clicked on this one ready to take to the internet, pitchfork held high in defiance of MLSsoccer.com positioning the first instance of a new regional matchup as an event brimming with tension and deep-seated loathing between Eastern Conference teams that seem close enough on a map to merit it … well, I have bad news before Sunday's meeting at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (4:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

I’m not even going to use the word to describe this clash that you think I’m going to use. Because Atlanta United and Charlotte FC haven’t even been on the same field yet. The teams have no reason for dislike, let alone hate. At least not yet.

But they do have something in common. They’ve both given reason to celebrate the success of the sport within a region that many dismissed as an MLS destination the first time and couldn’t see the same success happening a second or third time. That foundation even prompted ATLUTD president Darren Eales to toss out "Royal Rumble" as a possible name for this matchup, referencing Charlotte's position as the Queen City and the Five Stripes being dubbed Kings of the South.

Atlanta and Charlotte: The Next Big Rivalry?

Before we get to celebrations, we have to address the elephant in the room. You know, the word I’m intentionally not using. On Friday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Doug Roberson asked Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan whether or not this meeting signaled the beginning of a brand new [redacted] in MLS. Guzan laughed, paused and then wondered what kind of headline the media would create out of his answer. That sums up where the players are at on this. But what about the fans?

Fan anticipation

I asked a whole handful of folks for their thoughts on the opposing team, the opposing city and the possible newfound existence of a [nope not gonna say it] between the two. The responses were about what you’d expect. They ranged from “I don’t really think about them” to “It’s just another game (unless we lose)” to “I don’t know which games are [redacted] games until Heineken tells me” to an admittedly pretty well-crafted meme.

There is potential here though. There’s no doubt that visiting fans will have high attendance numbers for any meetings between these two teams. This is one of two relatively easy drives for Atlanta fans and the only easy drive for Charlotte fans considering the walled-in, single-lane traffic nightmare happening on I-85 about midway between the cities. Atlanta United aren’t happy about their attendance record being broken and likely feel the same about merch sale records going down too. That’s a shot across the bow in the club’s mind. Maybe not enough to publicly lash out, but Atlanta couldn’t help but sneak in a jab on the club website.

Potential stadium invasions and petty Easter eggs aren’t necessarily a “just add 90 minutes of soccer” solution toward creating a meaningful matchup. However, there are reasons beyond the clubs themselves for these two cities to hold off on extending the full depth of their southern hospitality to opposing fans.

The massive caveat to what I’m about to say is that I’m writing this from my home five minutes from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. However, I dunno y’all, I don’t think it makes it any less true: Atlantans, if they think about them at all, view Charlotteans as a little brother. That’s economically, culturally, the height of their Bank of America building, and every other major factor that defines a city. What makes this sibling relationship interesting is that little brother just threw a grown-up haymaker last Saturday with 74,479 fans for their home debut, marking a new MLS standalone attendance record.

Know your history

To simplify 100-plus years of complex history, Atlanta’s population advantage has created a gulf between the cities. That’s in large part because Atlanta took “fake it ‘till you make it” to heart more than any other southeastern city. Boosterism thrived in Atlanta. 1925’s “Forward Atlanta” campaign urged business hubs to find their way to the city. Slogans like the '60s nickname declaring Atlanta “The City Too Busy to Hate” propped up the city as a viable living and working alternative to other southern cities despite a still significant and readily apparent amount of hate. When Atlanta went to pitch themselves to the Olympic Committee for a shot at the 1996 Summer Olympics, they included a pamphlet touting a median August temperature of just 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Somehow, nearly all of this worked. Businesses came to the city. Population followed. And, eventually, the Olympics followed too.

Meanwhile, Charlotte didn’t find its stride until the 1980s. Regulations on interstate banking were lifted in North Carolina and Charlotte’s banks began buying smaller banks across the country. Charlotte is now the country’s second-largest banking hub. That boom pushed Charlotte’s economy and population well beyond other North Carolina cities like Winston-Salem and Raleigh. In the Southeast, however, it’s still playing catchup to Atlanta when it comes to population and cultural cachet.

These are two cities that have expanded and are rapidly expanding. Atlanta got a head start though. Now both places can see that mirrored through their soccer teams. Except of course, when it comes to attendance. And if that 74,479-person paradigm shift last weekend isn’t enough to spark some kind of emotion, there are enough cultural differences between the two cities to create, at the very least, a sense of distrust. As one lifelong Atlanta resident told me this week, “Up there they go to Lowe’s and they drink Pepsi. Why would anybody want to go somewhere that does that?”

Soccer in the South

Despite their differences, both cities, along with Nashville, have shifted preconceived notions of soccer’s ability to thrive in the South. Atlanta United and Charlotte have both broken attendance records, and Nashville are set to open a brand-new 30,000 seat soccer-specific stadium on May 1 (and boy does GEODIS Park look nice). This isn’t how most thought it would work. But grassroots efforts as far back as the 1960s by NASL and USL clubs to create youth-soccer programs in the region had staying power, creating generations of southerners who at least played recreationally in their youth. And population booms led to transplants willing to attach themselves to a team and community in their new city.

That combination of the new and old is presenting itself in the form of passionate fanbases and traditions that make the hours before MLS matches look like a shockingly diverse SEC tailgate. All of it conspires to turn matches into “capital E” Events that resonate with those who are new to the sport and those who have watched forever, plus those who are new to the city and those who might have quite literally been immaculately conceived by their home state itself.

Even if it’s not yet a true [still not gonna say it], hopefully the rest of the soccer-watching world is taking stock of a region in love with the sport. And hopefully both teams will still understand what’s on the line here:

  1. A chance to maintain or change a manifestation of a hierarchy in the Southeast
  2. Most importantly, a giant statue of a peach midway between the two cities on I-85