Atlanta United FC: MLS's 2017 expansion team selects its name
Born in the 1830s and then reborn toward the end of the 19th century, Atlanta is a big, bustling metropolis rich in history and iconography. It’s been a transport nexus in the rail and jet ages, it hosted an Olympics and it was a primary front in the civil rights movement. It’s been regarded as the cultural and economic capital of the American south. From the dogwood and the peach to the stunning phoenix rising on the city seal, there’s plenty of imagery available to inspire.
Rather than relying on its own backyard when choosing a name, however, it appears Atlanta’s new Major League Soccer team is looking abroad, toward England and the sport’s foundation (and maybe north to Washington D.C., as well). Multiple sources have told SI.com that Atlanta United FC has been selected as the expansion team’s name.
It will be introduced officially on July 7, along with a logo that’s thought to feature a prominent ‘A’ and the club’s red, yellow/gold and black colors. The Twitter hashtag associated with the unveiling event is #bringyourAgame, likely a reference to the logo, while the tagline is, “One Night. One Team. One Celebration To Remember,” which may be a subtle hint at the new name.
Atlanta United will take the field in 2017 inside the $1.4 billion, 71,000-seat, retractable-roof stadium now under construction across the street from the Georgia Dome. It will house United (in a downsized configuration) and the NFL’s Falcons, both of which are owned by Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank. The bare bones MLS club currently is helmed by president Darren Eales, a Brown University graduate who previously was Tottenham's executive director.
The Englishman is working alongside Atlanta’s new technical director, former U.S. national team captain Carlos Bocanegra.
Atlanta will be the 20th United across the top four tiers of U.S. soccer (MLS, NASL, USL and PDL/NPSL) and very well may be one of two teams named United FC joining MLS in 2017 (more on that below). That repetition, not to mention the fact that United is a pretty well established MLS brand thanks to the four-time champion in D.C., makes Atlanta’s choice a bit surprising. We’ll likely have to wait until July 7 for an explanation. The club did not respond to an email requesting comment.
The brand has been a popular topic among Atlanta soccer fans, who’ve already pledged to buy some 17,500 season tickets, according to the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But they haven’t rallied around United as a potential name, at least publicly. In early February, the Terminus Legion supporters group announced the result of an online survey that garnered more than 10,000 votes. The top five names were Terminus, Black Harts, Empire, Resurgents and Firebirds. The group concluded, “Fans don’t have a clear cut favorite. This isn’t going to be an easy team to name.”
In April, the Atlanta Business Chronicle ran a poll and reported that Atlanta Phoenix received more than 29% of the vote by “nearly 1,000” readers. Premier Atlanta and Atlanta Blaze finished second and third. The result suggests that Terminus Legion was on to something when it said there was no frontrunner. It also suggests that the phoenix on the city flag and seal was a symbol that seemed to resonate more than most.
(Disclosure: Atlanta Phoenix F/SC or Atlanta Firebirds F/SC would be this writer's choice.)
The city currently is served by the NASL’s Silverbacks, which was named in 1998 for a popular gorilla at Zoo Atlanta. The team is league-owned and its future is uncertain. The NPSL’s Georgia Revolution hail from nearby Conyers.
While the surveys are far from definitive, there didn’t seem to be much sign that fans were yearning for any of the traditional or stereotypical English or European names. There was no City, Rovers, Atlético, Real or Inter among the leading choices. And Atlanta FC didn’t make the cut, although the club did consider it. Atlanta FC certainly would have been a safer choice. While it lacks any hint of creativity, it’s so generic that few would bemoan the repetition. It’s a default name, not someone else’s. Plus, it makes it easier for supporters to develop their own nickname, thereby binding the club and fan base.
But United isn’t FC, although it may be heading that way. In 1995, when MLS teams were picking goofy names it thought would appeal to counterculture youth, D.C. United general manager Kevin Payne preferred the opposite approach. He believed part of soccer’s appeal was its tradition and cross-cultural consistency. United reflected that while also representing the Washington area, which was anchored by the capital of the United States and which comprised three entities—D.C., Virginia and Maryland—that might come together behind their new team. Compare MLS club names in 1996 with 2015 and it’s clear that Payne was on to something.
After rescuing the failing Minnesota Stars following the 2012 NASL season, owner Bill McGuire rechristened the club Minnesota United FC–uniting the Twin Cities and the histories of ancestor clubs.
“It reaches out to unite communities and the diversity in the state [and] it has a nice soccer, football feel to it,” McGuire said at the unveiling. “It’s all about uniting a lot of people in this sport and [that’s] what it does. … It is the sport that has total access. All our communities know it.”
The club and brand have taken off. The gray, blue and black loon logo is almost universally beloved and in March, MLS confirmed that Minnesota United will join the league as an expansion team. Backed by McGuire and the owners of the Twins, Timberwolves and the Carlson hotel and hospitality company, United currently is working on finalizing a stadium deal. That’s proven to be complicated.
The club missed out on the chance to secure the desired tax breaks when the state legislature adjourned in May, and it continues to negotiate with other political entities (including the city of St. Paul) and hopes to make progress toward a solution by the league’s July 1 deadline.
Minnesota would like to enter MLS in 2017. It could open in a temporary facility such as the National Sports Center in Blaine, where it currently plays, or perhaps the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium or the Vikings’ new U.S. Bank Stadium. Adidas, the league’s outfitter, already has contacted the club about uniform design for 2017. But according to source with knowledge of Adidas’s timeline, United still hasn’t received the final go-ahead from MLS to use its current name and logo.
The club is marketing to fans and sponsors, doing business (see the recent Miguel Ibarra transfer to Mexico's Club León, which was worth more than $1 million in cash and considerations) and trying to build a stadium and a major league brand under a name it still isn’t sure it can keep. Meanwhile, that same name has been approved for a team in Atlanta that started from scratch. If McGuire and Co. have their way, there will be three Uniteds in MLS in 2017 (or by 2018, at least).
Neither Minnesota United nor D.C. United, which plans to introduce a new logo for next season, would comment when contacted by SI.com.
While sharing nicknames within U.S. professional leagues is almost unheard of—mascots are important and teams have national profiles (see only “Bears vs. Rams” on the scroll at the bottom of your TV screen and you can picture the two teams immediately), it’s far more common abroad. And it’s as old as soccer itself.
When the inaugural Football League season kicked off in 1888—the 12-team English circuit was the planet’s first national league—there were two Wanderers (Bolton and Wolverhampton) and two Counties (Derby and Notts). The first United, from Sheffield, appeared in 1892. The first English sports club to use the name was founded in the 1850s, when several local cricket teams combined to form Sheffield United Cricket Club.
The name slowly caught on. By 1902, there were four Uniteds across the Football League’s two divisions: Sheffield, Newcastle, Burton and Manchester. Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End combined to form Newcastle United, while Burton United, now defunct, resulted from a merger between Burton Swifts and Burton Wanderers. As for Manchester United—the new owners of the club formerly known as Newton Heath simply liked the name.
Fifty years later, there were 12 Uniteds in England’s professional ranks and in 2015-16, there will be 14 in the four divisions comprising the Premier and Football Leagues and 11 more in the two-tier National League aiming for promotion. As the sport has spread beyond the British Isles so has the United name. There’s Lommel United in Belgium, JEF United in Japan, Adelaide United in Australia and Jeju United and Incheon United in South Korea.
There are three Uniteds in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, four in Nigeria’s top tier and more scattered throughout Africa and Asia. The 18-team Thai Premier League has five Uniteds. It’s not uncommon in the Caribbean either, and it’s even been adopted in other languages. There are Unidos and Unións in the Spanish speaking world and multiple Ittihads in the Middle East and North Africa.
The issue, however, is that a name that can be used by a team from every city can’t be that meaningful to any city. That doesn’t mean it can’t work. It depends ultimately on the fans and culture in a specific market. United certainly is meaningful in Washington and it has taken root in the Twin Cities. But it has no history in Atlanta. United doesn’t symbolize that city any more than it symbolizes 100 others, and there’s not much evidence we can point to when wondering whether D.C.’s brand recognition will suffer with another black and red (and yellow) United in the Eastern Conference or whether Atlanta supporters will embrace a name that isn’t entirely theirs.
The league certainly can’t tell McGuire that United is unavailable. By permitting Atlanta to use the name, it’s given the tacit green light to Minnesota.
Odds are, Blank’s explanation for the name will sound similar to McGuire’s: “It reaches out to unite communities and the diversity in the state [and] it has a nice soccer, football feel to it.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but it puts some onus on those communities to help forge their club’s identity. Perhaps that’s part of the plan. Maybe fans will value the connection to the global game as much as the one to their city. Maybe they’ll call the team AUFC or adopt an unofficial nickname for the team—Minnesota often is referred to as the Loons, for example. Either way, it will be up to Atlanta fans to make the team their own. The name isn’t going to do it.