Is Atlanta United vs Charlotte FC a rivalry?
By Chris Smith
Atlanta United and Charlotte FC go head-to-head for the first time on Sunday afternoon in a match that should mark the start of an exciting new rivalry in Major League Soccer.
But that's the question on everybody's lips right now: is this actually rivalry at all?
Away from the field, fans have been doing their part to stoke things up ahead of the big day. On the Atlanta side, regular reminders have been sent to the upstarts that they're the 'Kings of the South'. And on the Charlotte side, they're making clear they're here to take the crown.
Just last week, Charlotte also took Atlanta's seemingly unassailable MLS attendance record when they packed 74,479 into Bank of America Stadium for their first-ever home match against the LA Galaxy. And boy have the club and its fans made plenty of noise to celebrate the achievement.
Battle Royale, the I-85 derby, the Game of Thrones. There are plenty of names to give this match, and ultimately, it'll be the supporters that define the culture, hostility, and intensity around it.
"Atlanta and Charlotte can be a rivalry, as the fans seem to have some stake in it already. There's personnel from Atlanta at Charlotte too," Atlanta United Fan TV host AJ told 90min.
"Maybe there's extra competitive juice to beat a regional neighbor and to have bragging rights. But it seems unlikely the players on the pitch are feeling that quite yet. It could be more of a friendly rivalry between fans rather than a hatred à la Atlanta and Orlando City."
David Gussler, president of Charlotte FC fan group Mint City Collective, believes the rivalry will form organically with supporters of the cities' other sports teams already setting the stage.
"Atlanta is a nearby southern city that Charlotte often gets compared to," he said. "You have the rivalry between the two cities already with other sports, which helps fuel familiarity and the sense of a 'rival' for most folks in Charlotte and Atlanta. While I hear people say that rivalries need to be organic, I feel Atlanta will and already is becoming one before we even play each other."
On the pitch, things seem to be a little more placid. Atlanta United captain and goalkeeper Brad Guzan is taking something of a professional approach and doesn't see the value in trying to force a rivalry.
"It can't be manufactured, there needs to be real substance within the game," he told reporters after training on Friday. "Until we step on the field, it can't be something that's made up. It's got to feel real."
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda added: "With this new franchise coming, how close we are to Charlotte, and them beating the attendance record. Hopefully, in time, it can feel like a rivalry in a good, competitive fashion.
"But at the moment, it's false to say it's a rivalry because we've never faced them. But hopefully, in time, it can turn into something like that."
All of that said, Atlanta United couldn't help resist firing the first shot on their club website:
Never one to mince his words, Charlotte FC head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez has sent a warning shot to Atlanta United, revealing he wants the club's first-ever MLS win to come at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"I was the first to talk about it to my players," the Spaniard said at a press conference. "I said, 'I want my first win against Atlanta in Atlanta's house'. I said to them that never will it motivate me more than to have our first win in Atlanta's house."
Though Don Garber recently stated he's done expanding in the area, the southeast has been a beautifully successful hotbed for MLS.
Atlanta United won the MLS Cup, US Open Cup and Campeones Cup within three years of existence. Orlando City now seem to be catching up and games between the two are always heated. And Nashville SC have been steady and immensely competitive. Adding another club into the mix can only be a good thing and perhaps a multi-team rivalry similar to Cascadia Cup will emerge in time.
In years to come, supporters will define how this match-up looks, sounds, and feels. But to be able to call it a rivalry, games need to be played. We need a Josef Martinez goal, a big tackle from Christian Fuchs. Maybe a coming together between local boys Caleb Wiley and Jaylin Lindsey.
One big problem MLS still faces is the way it tries to manufacture fan culture and rivalries. Portland Timbers vs Seattle Sounders is so good because it's organic. Despite the name, El Trafico never needed to be scripted because the action on the field was incredible from day one.
Charlotte FC supporters will travel in huge numbers on Sunday and they'll be up for it. Atlanta United won't want to give an inch on their home patch, keen to remind their neighbors who is boss in these parts. It'll be colorful, vibrant, and real.
And that's the key. Soccer is at its best when it's spontaneous and from the heart. We don't need to dress it up or force fans and players to act in a particular way. They'll define what this game means for themselves.
They already are.