Atlanta United’s quest for a championship: The Cup or the Shield

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 22: Fans watch the match between the Atlanta United and the Toronto FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 22: Fans watch the match between the Atlanta United and the Toronto FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Atlanta faithful have waited long and hard for another championship trophy. The success of Atlanta United forces fans to ask themselves, which trophy?

October 28, 1995. A day etched into the minds and hearts of every Atlanta sports fan. Atlanta Braves outfielder Marquis Grissom found himself catching a fly ball that would send Atlanta Fulton County Stadium into an uproar by securing the final out to win the 1995 World Series Championship.

Ever since that autumn night, Atlanta fans only have the one championship in its trophy case, and gone through more than enough pain during the quest to bring home another ring. Whether it be a Hawks playoff collapse, an infield fly rule, or the infamous 2016 Super Bowl, Atlanta natives have endured years of suffering.

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But with the success of two-year-old franchise Atlanta United, fans must ask themselves, is this the year?

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Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank has formed a club in Major League Soccer that has taken the league by storm with its record-setting attendance and phenomenal form on the field. After falling to the Columbus Crew in the first round of 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, the success of the Five Stripes has fans wondering about the possibility of a 2018 championship.

Although bringing home a title may seem very cut and dry, the setup of a Major League Soccer season brings confusion for Atlanta fans as to what constitutes a “championship.”

Due to soccer being the world’s game, fans of MLS have numerous leagues around the world to look to for comparison. Top-tier European leagues such as the English Premier League and the German Bungdesliga all use the same format of crowing a champion at the end of the season; whoever sits atop the table takes home the hardware. This is the standard across the world and is accepted by supporters. However, the unique setup of American sports brings confusion about who really is the top team in MLS.

In every American sport, fans recognize the champion by who is the last team standing at the conclusion of the playoffs. Whether it be Stanley Cup, World Series, NBA Finals, or the Super Bowl, United States sports culture teaches that the last man standing is the true champion, regardless of regular season performance. This creates an unique situation for Major League Soccer, which is consistently working to improve its ranking in the world, while also trying to gain ground with the domestic fan.

ATLANTA, GA – OCTOBER 26: Hector Villalba
ATLANTA, GA – OCTOBER 26: Hector Villalba /

In order to grow and become a top-level league around the world, fans of MLS often times will want to mold the American League to the standard of European Leagues, which would include taking away playoffs. The use of playoffs is criticized by many, claiming that a single elimination tournament is based more upon luck and does not truly measure who is the best team. Although the MLS Cup Playoffs use the aggregate system (similar to Europe) during the Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals, many still consider the tournament to be single elimination and think that it is an invalid measurement of success.

Although Major League Soccer is constantly in a fight to improve its world ranking, Don Garber and MLS still fight for the viewership of the average American fan. Due to every other sport using playoffs, the idea of not having playoffs would seem to make MLS lose all the ground it has worked so hard to earn. The idea of a soccer league in the United States is still just now beginning to grow on many fans, and dropping the playoff system would likely cause a large amount of those fans to revert right back to the traditional sports they have always watched.

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The Atlanta faithful have waited a long time to finally have a championship to call their own, and Atlanta United look to be on the brink of giving the Dirty South another trophy for the collection. But the question still remains, which trophy?