There are two types of MLS expansion teams: those rising from lower leagues and newly-formed teams. For those starting from scratch in MLS, there is a search for something to hold onto.
Saturday afternoon, Atlanta United FC, MLS' newest team, played its final game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the campus of Georgia Tech. Following the game, the club, its fans, and local media poured affection for the stadium they were leaving behind, despite the club only playing nine games there.
The plan from the beginning was that the new side would start the season at Bobby Dodd Stadium in downtown Atlanta before moving into the Atlanta Falcons’ newly built Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Knowing from the start that it would be a temporary place holder, many wonder how the club, its fans, and the local media can feel so nostalgic about leaving.
Atlanta's opponent Saturday was Orlando City, which is now playing in its third stadium since the club's founding in 2010. Last year, the Lions played their final season in the Citrus Bowl (now Camping World Stadium), the club's original home. There were also some nostalgic feelings from City fans that day but the leaving of the stadium was much different.
Orlando City started playing at the Citrus Bowl during its inaugural season of 2011. While then-club president Phil Rawlins stated his intention of joining MLS, it was far from a sure thing. Over the next three years, the Lions won two regular season USL titles and two championship games. Both finals were played at the Citrus Bowl and broke, at the time, league attendance records.
The Citrus Bowl was also the home for the push for MLS. When New York City FC was announced as the league's 20th team, it looked as though that push had failed. The following weekend, the Lions had a home game where fans held up signs, banners, and chanted their displeasure at MLS Commissioner Don Garber. Soon after that game, MLS announced that it had changed its plans and would expand further.
After a year away in 2014, Orlando City returned to a newly-renovated Citrus Bowl for the 2015 MLS season. Due to construction delays on its new soccer-specific stadium, the club ended up playing two full seasons at the Citrus Bowl.
While Orlando City only played five seasons at the Citrus Bowl, it hosted 83 league and cup games, including two championship games at the stadium. The club also hosted Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United, Stoke City, and West Bromwich Albion of the Premier League in friendlies, as well as Ponte Preta from Brazil.
In fact, Orlando City played more games at ESPN's Wide World of Sports during the 2014 season (15 games) than Atlanta United played in total at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Certainly, there are reasons to have affection for Bobby Dodd Stadium for Atlanta fans. It was the club's first stadium, even if temporary, and the team did enjoy some success there. But the fact is that the team was only there for nine MLS games, it was known to be nothing more than temporary, and Atlanta never won anything of note at the stadium, which makes you wonder why fans would feel so nostalgic about the place.
The reaction of Atlanta United, its fans, and the local media to leaving the stadium illustrates the unique situation of MLS expansion teams. Expansion clubs that have a history prior to joining MLS, regardless how short, often find nostalgia in certain aspects of the club. It can be an old stadium, a former logo, or former players. In a game often defined by history, clubs starting from scratch search for something to cling to.
Atlanta United lacks any history, so, for its fans, feeling nostalgic about Bobby Dodd Stadium allows them to pretend to have some connection to the past. The result of this is odd tributes to a stadium the club played in for less than five months.
Above all, the tributes to Bobby Dodd Stadium by Atlanta United show the quite extreme difference between the two types of MLS expansion teams — differences that we're likely to see more of as MLS expansion continues.