Two of the league's most popular teams and two of the league’s most hated teams are playing each other on Sunday. All in the same game. In a sport they both invented.
Or something like that.
It's the annual regular season rendezvous between the Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United (3:55 pm ET on ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN1).
I’m not going to chart the exact origins of the “Seattle invented soccer” joke, but I do know that, during the Sounders’ inaugural 2009 MLS season, the team’s instant, unprecedented success along with people like me writing things like “the team’s instant, unprecedented success” became such an inescapable storyline to fans of other teams that the only way to fight back was to sarcastically oversaturate the degree to which that success was actually occurring.
A Seattle player wins the award for best goal of the week? “Seattle invented goal of the week.”
Seattle fans flood an online poll? “Seattle invented online polls.”
Seattle wins MLS Cup despite not having a single shot on target? Seattle...OK yeah actually, they did invent that.
If you weren’t a part of the group making fun of Seattle, you were Seattle. And everyone who wasn’t Seattle hated Seattle.
And then came Atlanta United. And they pretty much doubled everything Seattle did. And people like me wrote things like “They’re pretty much doubling everything Seattle did” and it became Atlanta’s turn to have invented a sport that can literally be traced back to the Han Dynasty.
All of what some would call resentment, what some could call hate, what some would call jealousy that fans of other MLS teams had for Seattle could now be placed on Atlanta. Whatever you think that feeling should be called, it sets up Sunday’s match between the two teams in the most hate-watched match of the season. Thousands of extra eyes will move to the match the same way we would clamor to watch a cage match between Darth Vader and Voldemort. Most people outside of the cage don’t really want anyone in particular to win, but at the very least it will be interesting to watch and, who knows, they might destroy each other in the process.
Unfortunately for distant observers, the two previous matches between the teams have been less two teams trying to destroy each other and more two teams trying to remember that you need to score goals in soccer to win the game.
The first match: A scoreless draw as Atlanta United worked through first month jitters in 2017.
The second match: A post-World Cup final, nationally televised 1-1 draw that was so aesthetically regressive it may have actually undone every single positive thing both teams had ever done for MLS. I’m not sure if that’s a joke. It basically became a Wrestlemania event that Chris McCann barely, and I mean just barely, survived.
This annual Seattle-Atlanta match is clearly due for some fireworks. Although both teams appear, more than ever, evenly matched. Both teams enter Sunday with nine wins, a plus-four goal differential and sit third in their respective conference.
Until Sunday though, a three-year tradition continues of attempting to figure out who invented what between the two teams and how much credit they deserve for it. You would think that Seattle and Atlanta would find solace in each other’s status as villains, but it seems that beneath grudging respect is a fight for acknowledgment for the league’s successes. A fight that everyone not involved surely finds endearing.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer has even weighed in on the conversation, telling MLSsoccer.com’s Ari Liljenwall that there are “a lot of good things that Atlanta has done that they actually learned from us.”
It’s not exactly a rivalry, but when you get folks from both sides constantly saying “Well actually” to each other, things stay a little tense between the fanbases. Mark Kastner, a Sounders fan and writer for Seattle’s SBNation team site Sounder at Heart, described Seattle fans’ feelings on Atlanta United as a mix of the same general dislike the rest the league has for the Five Stripes, a tiny splash of no longer being the consensus biggest fish in the pond and a bit of veteran disdain for the new kid on the block.
“There’s a little bit of Older Brother vs Little Brother thing going on, too,” Kastner said. “Some of the things Atlanta fans complain about, Seattle looks at that as 'That’s cute. Your first rodeo, eh?’”
Meanwhile, some Atlanta fans would maybe rather not be told how to do things by a team with the same number of MLS Cups won, fewer MLS Cup goals and inferior attendance numbers -- in fact, lower numbers in pretty much everything except for years of existence. Yep, some Atlanta fans who are definitely not me would say that.
If the deadlock on the field breaks on Sunday, the winning side will finally have a tangible component to any arguments of superiority. It certainly won’t end any arguing or make one side more likable to the rest of MLS, but no matter what, people around the country, for love or hate, will be watching.
EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Sam Jones is a soccer writer and columnist and regular contributor to DirtySouthSoccer.com. You can listen to him stumble through discussions about Atlanta United on the Dirty South Soccer podcast network and follow him @J_SamJones if you don’t mind occasional ALL CAPS YELLING about American Football and Pitchfork reviews.