Thanks to the recent Heineken Rivalry Week, I take a deeper look at who qualifies as a legitimate rival for Atlanta United.
Atlanta United is barely a year and a half old in its match playing existence. Yet they are atop the league and at the forefront of Major League Soccer’s image thanks to a record breaking goal scorer, a rabid fan base, and a beautiful stadium and city atmosphere.
They have one “rival” club in Orlando City. This was highlighted recently as part of the MLS Heineken Rivalry Week. This Rivalry Week is an attempt by MLS at establishing derbies in a still young (only 23-year-old) league. Some of these rivalries stick, such as the Cascadia Cup between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, or the Hudson River Derby between NYCFC and New York Red Bulls. Even the first year derby El Trafico, between LA Galaxy and LAFC, is already must watch soccer after just three contests.
However, some rivalries feel forced and do not stick as well. Take Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids for example. There is still a Rocky Mountain Cup between the two teams, who are geographically close, but RSL are winners in ten of the last twelve Cups. Atlanta and Orlando are a forced rivalry. The two are closest to each other in geographic approximation, but through six matches the series is extremely one sided. Atlanta has won four of the six, with the other two ending in draws.
As someone who has watched nearly every minute of Atlanta United through their first 52 games in MLS existence, I think it’s time to look at serious candidates for an actual rivalry. This top five list will be based on match results, quality and intensity of gameplay, and banter between coaches and players.
Before we hit the top five, let’s look at a couple of teams that missed the cut.
Columbus Crew, NYCFC
These two teams barely miss the top five but deserve a shoutout nonetheless. Coaches for both teams, Gregg Berhalter and Patrick Viera (at the time), provided tactical challenges against Atlanta and drew praise from Tata Martino. Unfortunately, Viera is no longer at New York City FC, but the talented club should always be a challenge for Atlanta moving forward.
Columbus Crew is the first team out of the top five. In regular season play, Atlanta is undefeated against Columbus and has outscored them 10-2 across four matches, two at home and two on the road. Given that record, I think Columbus falls short of being a rival. However, these teams met in the knockout round of last year’s playoffs in what was an instant classic. In front of a record playoff crowd in Atlanta, Columbus’ Zack Steffen shined in goal as he held Atlanta scoreless. Both teams came close to breaking through but the game went to a penalty shootout where Columbus eventually won.
Against NYCFC, Atlanta is 1-1-2. Last year both teams won their respective home games by a score of 3-1. This year these teams drew in both contests. With such even scores (the overall score is 7-7), I think NYCFC can be considered a rival. Where they fall short though, is the intensity of these matches. When these teams meet there is intensity, but it is a respectful intensity. There is almost never any animosity outside of your average game play. Because of this, I think NYCFC barely misses the cut.
Now let’s move on to the top five potential rivals for Atlanta United.