Atlanta United must be wary of what happens after 'new stadium boost'
On Sunday afternoon, Atlanta United officially inaugurated its fantastic new Mercedes-Benz Stadium with an emphatic 3-0 win over FC Dallas. It was a game that also showcased the team's more celebrated ruthless qualities in building a big lead off the opening goal, rather than its somewhat less celebrated tendency to blow narrow leads through wasteful finishing. Perhaps bear that latter point in mind as the salient detail coming out of this match. Because long after we've stopped talking about retractable roofs, spectacular city skyline views and the notable energy of Atlanta's fans finding a home in which to root themselves, we'll be assessing Atlanta United's 2017 by the type of team it is.
It's easy to get carried away by the idea of any sort of "bounce" from a new stadium -- or for that matter, a new coach -- and there's some anecdotal evidence to suggest that there's virtue in that. A new stadium can be a physical mission statement that, for expansion teams in particular, can feel like the promised land, a place where all the grassroots efforts that led to the opening truly find meaning: "See? We built this ..."
But after the fireworks smoke clears, it is the games that are played in new stadiums, rather than the symbolism of their being there in the first place, that quickly determines what these stadiums come to "mean."
And that legacy can be complicated.
Around the turn of this decade, Red Bull Arena and what is now Children's Mercy Park were built. Both have gone on to be formidable home venues for the Red Bulls and Sporting KC. But an early run of home playoff losses still undermines the aura of New York's home, however consistent the team becomes otherwise. Meanwhile, the memory of Jimmy Nielsen famously "painting the wall" upon Sporting winning the first trophy of the new stadium era felt like a kind of confirmation blessing for the stadium's aura of invincibility. Even in the subsequent periods since, where the sellout home crowds have witnessed less than invincible incarnations of the team, Children's Mercy Park has stood as an emblem for the tough, attritional sides that Peter Vermes builds at the "Blue Hell."
Perhaps Mercedes-Benz Stadium will come to stand for Tata Martino's United, a gleaming yet volatile squad, as well. The raucous crowds that have lit up Bobby Dodd Stadium this year were there in concentrated form on Sunday to roar the team on to victory, with the team at its speedy, lethal best. But maintaining full speed will be a challenge. Atlanta now famously has a run of eight games in 25 days to grind through, and never mind the instant tarnish on the stadium: the tarnish on the most exciting expansion team since Seattle could be telling. By the end of that three-week period, the stadium will still be a topic of conversation among MLS bucket list compilers, but most fans could be looking at standings and disabled lists, rather than slideshows instead.
That shift is natural, of course, and Atlanta looks better prepared than most expansion teams to deal with this type of sustained test. And the fact is that however its season gets refracted in the coming days, the team is on the right course. The stadium will simply showcase what's already there.
Atlanta fans might want to remember another game this weekend, in which Orlando City beat D.C. United on the road in what, barely into September, already was pretty much a dead game for both teams.
Orlando, of course, famously opened a new stadium earlier this season, replete with a "purple wall" standing section and the requisite new stadium bounce to go with it. In retrospect, the short unbeaten run it opened the stadium with relied a little too heavily on some solid defending from the likes of Jonathan Spector to be truly emphatic, but for a brief moment, it was easy to believe that the missing piece of the Orlando puzzle had arrived.
In reality, the drift of the team was there before and after the stadium; the major structural reckoning that Orlando faces might not be the building its plays in but how long it wishes to continue building the team around Kaka. For all his influence at times, Orlando has won once in his last 14 starts, and with the Brazil international on the bench again this weekend, it saw out a road win in D.C. to go 8-3-3 in equivalent games without him.
There was some poetry in the fact that Orlando played D.C. United, which illustrated another orthodoxy of new stadium builds: the holding pattern for teams waiting for a promised stadium to arrive. A replacement for creaking RFK Stadium has been mooted for so long that the constraints on the team's spending have come to seem like its natural state. It will be fascinating to see if and how Ben Olsen can turn the team into anything beyond budget-savvy scrappers at its new stadium, having worked under those conditions for much of his reign at the club.
And that's the truth of stadiums and this MLS stadium era. However state-of-the-art they may be, they can only ever frame what's on the field. Chances are that a healthy team and a healthy organization will be reflected in its stadium, for sure, but a stadium cannot make a healthy team. And regardless of the setting, we're about to witness a testing time for Atlanta.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.