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United derby? Atlanta, DC supporters talk about possible budding rivalry

If you’re looking to bond in fandom over a new team, having rivals to hate certainly helps.

It’s several months into Atlanta United FC’s inaugural season, and Orlando City SC—who Atlanta United has yet to play—have emerged as the obvious geographical choice. A recent match against the Montreal Impact potentially sowed the seeds for future, spirited Eastern Conference showdowns. Given that they entered the league the same year that Minnesota United FC did, there’s certainly potential for continual comparison between the two teams, if not an outright rivalry.

But what about the original United, D.C. United?

Both teams, who will meet for the first time ever at Bobby Dodd Stadium this Sunday, Apr. 30 (3 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes), share that six-letter word in their name and a black-and-red color scheme. It’s less than a ten-hour drive between the team’s stadiums, which makes it among the closest destinations for Atlanta fans looking to make a road trip. And Atlanta and Washington sports fans do occasionally find themselves rooting against each other in other pro and college sports.

Some Atlanta fans are open to a rivalry with the original MLS Cup champions. Some think it’s a natural extension of what’s come before.  

“You could definitely say there is a rival history here,” said Thomas Thornton, a 33-year-old native Atlantan, who sports his holy trinity of soccer favorites—Atlanta United FC, the US national team, and Manchester United—on a giant arm tattoo. Thornton points to the current playoff series between the NBA’s Hawks and Wizards, continuing a recent history of the teams facing off in their quests to reach the finals, as well as the ‘90s rivalry between MLB’s Braves and Montreal Expos, who moved to D.C. to become the Nationals in 2005, as evidence of healthy sports hate.

However, before Thornton had an MLS team to call his own, he was a D.C. United fan. “I still have my scarves and my kits,” Thornton confesses. “However, that was always in my heart as something to hold me over until we got ‘our own.’ Now that Atlanta United is here, I'm loyal to the core.”  

“With their history, passionate fan base, and the fact that we will be fighting each other for playoff spots, I fully expect it to become a rivalry in the coming seasons, if not this one,” said Resurgence co-founder Sam Veal.

Veal does expect that Atlanta fans might take some ribbing over being late to the United-in-their-name party, but as he observes, “They do have the privilege of being the first 'United,' but we have the privilege of being Atlanta.”

But while a number of Atlanta United fans seem open to a new rivalry, the general consensus among seasoned D.C. fans is, “We’re full up on rivalries, thanks.”

“When I personally think of rivals, the Atlantic Cup is our first and foremost,” said Donald Wine, with D.C. United supporters’ group Screaming Eagles. In addition to the obvious friction with the Red Bulls, he also touts other Eastern Conference competition as more worthy of their attention, including what he characterizes as a friendly rivalry with the Philadelphia Union.

Unlike Thornton and Veal, he doesn’t regard Atlanta and Washington as real rivals in anything, and is also pretty clear on how he feels about their shared monikers. “When it comes to Atlanta and Minnesota, we're pretty clear: we're the original United, we're the best United, and when we refer to United, we always mean D.C.,” Wine said.

Paul Sotoudeh, another longtime Screaming Eagles member, notes, “We're the original United, the original dominant MLS team, the original standard-bearer for the league, so even if we're none of those things now we'll always be able to hold that over them. Don't forget that Atlanta chose to wear black and red too, so they might as well be ‘D.C. United Junior.’”

Some D.C. United fans will be seeing what Atlanta’s building first hand. A contingent of about 50 Screaming Eagles members, as well as a group of fans from fellow D.C. United supporters’ group Barra Brava, will make the road trip to Georgia.

Screaming Eagles road trip organizer Jimi Butler notes that those numbers will pick up in future years with the opening of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Saturday rather than Sunday matches, and the relative ease of getting to Atlanta from the nation’s capital.

But it’s not just Beltway fans making the road trip to Atlanta; Butler reports that D.C. United fans from the Southeast, who haven’t abandoned their allegiance to the team, will converge on Atlanta for the match. There are even tentative plans for a tailgate bringing the two D.C. supporters’ groups together.

And while a D.C. win on Sunday would pull the two Uniteds even on points, the attendance league leaders should be out in force and loud for Atlanta’s first home match since winning 4-0 over the Fire back on March 18. And at least one Atlanta fan is ready to tout his city’s advantages should it come to that.

“If their fanbase would like, they can certainly banter on about being the original United in MLS,” Veal said. “We'll just remind them who has better food and hip hop.”