atl rivalry

There was a lot of rivalry talk leading up to the inaugural Orlando City-Atlanta United match. Most of it coming from fans, some of it from highway signage. 

There were mixed reactions afterwards.

“I think we’ll have to wait another 50 years to find out,” Atlanta United coach Tata Martino said when asked if the match felt like a rivalry. “We need another 50 years and 100 games between the two teams before we can call it a rivalry. 

“I appreciate the enthusiasm you guys have about it but it’s far from being a rivalry.”

Maybe so, but this felt different. There was a different energy on the pitch before the game. The Wall was packed, the stadium was full, even the visiting supporters’ section was at capacity. It was like a battle for who could chant the longest and loudest.

There’s a certain energy when a sea of purple surrounds the pitch. But with that section of red and black, the atmosphere was electric.

As for the match itself, it had its fair share of harsh challenges. Words were exchanged and pushing led to shoving. But there were no reds, no moments of great controversy. Just a last-second golazo to steal three points for the visitors. 

“You come into this environment, this atmosphere, it’s hostile,” Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “There were are a few people, including their manager, that said, ‘Listen, rivalries aren’t just – you can’t just make them. They have to be formed.’”

Each rivalry is formed in a different way. Most are geographic – Orlando and Atlanta are only close by MLS standards – but others have a spark. An over-the-top tackle, fiery comment or a playoff battle. Friday didn’t have any of those, but both teams are fighting for a spot above the red line, and even with the win, United is just four points up on City. 

Round 2 is Saturday in Atlanta.

Any budding rivalry in MLS is measured against Portland-Seattle, and rightfully so. They have two of the best fan bases in the league and have won the last two MLS Cups. 

Will Johnson has been in that rivalry. He was a Timber for three years and won MLS Cup in 2015. And though he didn’t compare Orlando-Atlanta to Portland-Seattle – not even close – he did offer a bit more than Jason Kreis, who said, “it didn’t warrant any rivalry talk. It was just a good, competitive match.”

Said Johnson: “I think this is the start of something, for sure.”

Whatever it is, hopefully it doesn’t take 50 years.