Cheering for a sports team is something personal you do collectively. Your favorite sports team will provide you much joy in your life, but it will also provide you much -- more, actually -- pain. This is the deal that you make. You will spend most of your life having your favorite teams infuriate you: You will spend far more time complaining about your team that you will cheering them. In the midst of all this frustration, you will find little moments of joy, of exhilaration, that make the barren time worth it. It's all an investment, and one that might never pay off.
So why do we do it? We do it because that's how we were raised, because one time your mom or your dad took you to a game and someone did something amazing and 50,000 people screamed and that was something you'd never seen before and it blew your damned mind. I was 7 years old when my father took me to Busch Stadium and Ozzie Smith did a freaking backflip running onto the field and Willie McGee pulled a home run back from over the wall and it was so mind-blowing that it's a rush I've been chasing ever since. The Cardinals could have run out onto the field wearing jerseys that read "WILL LEITCH SUCKS," and I'd still cheer for them. Fandom is irrational and self-destructive, but it is fiercely, agonizingly consistent.
That moment when they hook you, though, that's all that counts. You can never let go after that, no matter how hard you try. It's all about that moment. The trick is getting to that moment. The trick is finding it.
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Sunday night, the Atlanta United Football Club, one of two expansion teams joining Major League Soccer this year, will play its first game, against the New York Red Bulls. The first eight home games will be at Bobby Dodd Stadium, home of the Georgia Tech football team (though up here in Athens we prefer to call it Mark Richt Stadium), and then they'll move into the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium (which will also be home of the Falcons and next year's college football national championship game) on July 30. It's a new team, created out of whole cloth.
It is fair to say there has been some excitement. The team has already sold 30,000 season tickets, the second-most in all of the MLS, and the opening game is expected to have more than 50,000 in attendance. They've been having massive rallies in Atlanta all week, and around the MLS, Atlanta United has been referred to as "Seattle South," in reference to Seattle's immediate, all-encompassing obsession with soccer that has led it to have the highest MLS attendance every year since they played their first season in 2009. Fan groups have popped up all over Atlanta, from Atlanta Resurgence to Footie Mob to Terminus Legion to The Faction. They're even making a big fuss at tiny friendlies in Chattanooga.
The overwhelming reaction to the Atlanta expansion MLS team -- in a town often, and unfairly, criticized as a lousy pro sports town -- has been a surprise to many in the MLS world, but it shouldn't have been. Soccer has long been a quiet obsession in Atlanta, and the city itself has grown younger and more diverse in recent years, the exact sort of recipe that brews soccer fandom in the United States. It's also a city that's eager to shed the (wrong) Bad Fans reputation and, even more so, is starved for some success. As you might have realized during the Super Bowl, Atlanta has a history of breaking its fans' hearts, and the enthusiasm (and money) poured into the Atlanta United franchise has fans believing they have a real winner in town. Atlanta United has brought in former Argentinian national team and Barcelona coach Tata Martino as head coach and signed some big international names (Miguel Almirón, Josef Martínez and Héctor Villalba) to compete immediately … and be able to sustain it moving forward. With all that history, a new team, with an entirely fresh start, is immensely appealing. This is a shiny new object that hasn't hurt you yet.
And I'll confess: I'm a part of this. I've lived in Georgia for nearly four years now but never had a Georgia professional sports team -- we obviously root for the Dawgs here in Athens -- something that, as the father of two boys who won't stop tackling each other, I feel is sort of important. But I'm not going to start cheering for the Braves over the Cardinals, or the Falcons over the football Cardinals, or the Hawks over my Knicks (the holdover from 13 years in New York City). But I've never had an MLS team before. It's a league that has fallen outside my range for several years now; I've supported it more in theory than in practice. But with a new team in Atlanta that has everyone excited, I couldn't help but be a part. I, along with two friends here in Athens, am now one of those 30,000 season ticket holders. And the boys are appropriately kitted up.
There is legitimate excitement here. Atlanta United has a terrific fan blog and a fun podcast and even its own (sometimes sort of silly) chants, including one set to "Losing My Religion," from Athens' own R.E.M.
It's all very fun and new and thrilling and just about the most purely pleasurable sports thing going on in Atlanta right now and I'm elated to get to be a part.
Now, alas, they have to go about the grimy, untoward business of actually playing games.
And that's the thing I wonder about Atlanta United, as thrilled as I am, as much as I can't wait to watch them play, and invigorating as it is getting in on the ground floor. At this precise moment, right before they've played an actual, real live game, they are nothing but positivity. They have a superstar coach. They have some real studs on their roster. They have a thrilling style meant to maximize crowd vigor. They have an owner (Arthur Blank) who wants to spend his way to an MLS Cup. They have a brand new stadium opening this summer that no one has seen yet. They are nothing but upside. They are nothing but potential. They don't exist right now! Everything is looking up!
But eventually, they will exist. Eventually, they will lose games, they will fail to meet expectations, they will fire their coach, they will make some sort of PR blunder that causes fans to question why they care so much about this team in the first place. This is the case with every sports team; they are a civic institution, and we love nothing more than complaining about civic institutions. They disappoint, they annoy, they irritate, they break your heart. They lose.
Right now, Atlanta United is pristine, unblemished, nothing but something we can all get excited about and feel special about and scream super loud about. Atlanta is a city that has sometimes struggled with a collective mindset, but the unquestioned desire for that has led to this moment for Atlanta United. Everybody's a fan of Atlanta United right now. But it is much easier to be a fan when you haven't, uh, played any games. Now there are actual games. Now there are actual sports. Now is when it gets hard.
So on the eve of their first game, I just wanted to take the opportunity to appreciate this final moment of perfection for Atlanta United, when the whole city's ecstatic to welcome a new team, to feel like they're a part of something, to have a happy collective good, before the ungainly realities of cheering for a sports team set in. Many of those 50,000 fans won't come back after this weekend. But if this team can give them that moment -- or even if just the atmosphere of 50,000 people losing their mind, starting something together, can itself be that moment -- then, well, dammit, they'll have us forever, whether we like it or not.
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Until then, though: I'll just have to enjoy the "Losing My Religion" chant. It's for corner kicks. It's a real chant.
That's US in the corner
That's YOU in the spotlight
Losing to our set piece
Trying to keep us OUT
And I don't know if you can do it
Oh no I've said too much
You haven't scored enough
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
There is no way I am not dorky enough to yell that.