How did the Five Stripes become MLSs most popular team five months after their first ever game? Shifting attitudes towards football in the US explain a lot
Two Major League Soccer expansion clubs first took the field in March 2017, both bearing the moniker United. One in Minneapolis, the other in Atlanta a city in that lower-third of the American map which, conventional wisdom holds, stands in stark opposition to the globalist concerns of either American coast, and could therefore never deign to care about a sport as preposterously effete as soccer, where flopping is rewarded.
Five months later, Atlanta United boast the highest average home attendance in Major League Soccer history (46,318 fans per game, more than any other MLS, NBA, NHL or MLB franchise in the country) and are in contention for the playoffs, while Minnesota United play to smaller than league-average crowds.
So what gives?
Changing a culture
Until recently, the United States particularly the southernmost ones away from the soccer hipsters of Brooklyn, New York, and Portland, Oregon have not been known as a haven of ftbol culture. The same held true for Atlanta, where even a North American sport such as hockey was unable to garner a sufficient audience to survive (the NHLs Thrashers left the city in 2011). And yet, Atlanta United played their first home game to 55,297 fans in March the best-attended match of MLS opening weekend by a factor of two and the fourth-largest soccer crowd in the world that week.
One explanation for the shift toward soccer in southern cities such as Atlanta may lie in the nature of the sport itself. In The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally differentiate between two kinds of social ecosystems weak link and strong link. Strong-link sports have traditionally been popular in the individualist culture of the US, while weak-link sports dominate countries throughout the world. In a strong-link sport, the greatest impact is typically made by Atlas-like individuals, who take the world onto their shoulders to win games (LeBron James and Tom Brady come to mind). Weak-link sports are more cooperative. A soccer team may require 10 perfect passes to score, meaning that a single weak link in the chain can derail the entire enterprise. Likewise, a single strong player is usually precluded from inflicting any outsized dominance on the competition.