Old Atlanta vs. New Atlanta

It’s been over three years since Rembert Browne, then of ESPN’s Grantland, reminded us of the Olympic Curse.

For those unfamiliar, the curse suggests the organizers of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bid made a deal with the devil and secured the games in exchange for 99 years of sports futility.

In a quality example of a Faustian efficiency the scoreboard reads as follows:

‘Big Four’ Teams that have left town: 1
Titles: 0

At times even just visiting the metro area can lead to someone catching the bad voodoo. Hell, The Great Locomotive Chase — a failed raid by a Union spy from West Virginia during the Civil War involving train theft and sabotage of the rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga — got as far as Ringgold (close-ish to Chattanooga) before it went pear-shaped. Seeing as how Atlanta was burned to the ground and the raiders were hanged, Atlanta somehow managed to hand out Ls to everyone involved.

20161115_195852But less than four months after the Browne article, years of rumors were confirmed when Falcons owner Arthur Blank landed in a helicopter atop a downtown Atlanta building to announce Atlanta’s expansion MLS franchise.

There was no name. There were no colors (don’t kid yourself though, we all knew it would be red and black. Everything is red and black. The fact that the Braves don’t have a black alternate jersey is still mildly surprising to me).

It didn’t matter. There was excitement about something intangible at that moment and much of the overriding fear of Atlanta-ing the situation was missing.

Fast forward almost three years and the franchise has hit all of the right notes with hirings and signings in the eyes of the fans and national media. The introduction of the academy has been overwhelmingly praised as a sign that United is competent and playing the long game.

With the hiring of Gerardo Martino and acquisition of young exciting players, everyone has the right to be over the moon. We should also be reminded that there is still a long way to go. United doesn’t have a game under its belt unless you count watching the Academy teams Cirque du Soleil their way to win after win. The stadium isn’t ready and there are still holes on the roster.

Still, there is hope and there is excitement. With every step forward United delivers another proverbial gut punch to the Atlanta Sports Curse. All that’s left is the potential haymaker that we’re all waiting for.

Despite all of the flops and tire fires in Atlanta sports history, the newest franchise feels promising and it’s a new sensation for many fans not to have a rock sitting in their stomach.

In a vacuum, Atlanta United would be a winner on paper, garnering positive international press and helping show the way forward in American Soccer. In Atlanta, where falling down a manhole cover while rounding third base is met with a resigned sigh, the club is nothing short of a rousing success that has had a number of external factors blow its way.

Some of those factors, such as Atlanta’s unique geography in sports, are reliable standbys that make the city and team unique in its ability to reach out in a culture where sport can be a way of life.

Other factors, like the Braves moving to Cobb County, present new opportunities. It can’t be stated enough that United’s chief summer-time competition has moved to the suburbs and handed United a professional sports monopoly within the perimeter.

To understand the significance of the move to the land-of-even-less-public-transit you have to remember that the Hawks and Falcons had both at least been rumored to be on the move out of downtown in the past. The Falcons to Doraville and the Hawks allegedly along the 400 corridor before Ted decided he wanted to walk to games. For the Braves to actually do it — especially at such short notice — was surprising to some and infuriating to others (though that’s a discussion for another time and another website.)

There will always be bumps along the way; you won’t find a franchise in any sport without them. That said, United has the chance to carry the flag for this city’s sport salvation.

Salvation isn’t a one year path. Think of it more as a multi-year crusade. A crusade (hopefully) without the painful memories.

No hanging sliders. No failed 4th downs. No MJ. No Eugene Robinson. No Danny Manning trade. Just hope.

It feels appropriate that Atlanta’s other source of hope will reside in the same building. The Falcons are unexpectedly two games away from completing the city’s Sisyphean task ahead of United’s first game. Same owner, same building, same goal.

We are seeing what can happen when Mr. Blank is able to shape and reshape a fledgling franchise with the right pieces and investments. We are about to see how how this process works with an organization built from scratch and not reclaimed from sports purgatory.

Either the Falcons finish the dream and United is passed the baton to build a winning culture or United is on the clock to produce the next winner. Either way the path is clear.

The dominos are lining up nicely. All that’s left to do is set up the rest, knock them down and watch the beautiful picture unfold.  

The Olympics were supposed to drag Atlanta the city into a new day. Twenty-one years later, maybe Atlanta United is the team to lift Atlanta the sports town and the city up from the depths.

After the last year in sports, there’s never been a better time to break a curse.

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