Atlanta United, best MLS expansion team ever? Not so fast

Atlanta United is on course to set an attendance record in its first MLS season and is playing some of the best soccer ever seen in the league. But how does it rank among expansion teams?

With the additions of Minnesota United and Atlanta United, MLS has grown by 15 teams since the first expansion of 1998. That year, a new team in Chicago led by a Princeton grad and ex-assistant coach named Bob Bradley guided the Fire to an incredible double of MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup.

Since then, no newbie has come close to winning the league title, though the fledgling Sounders established their street cred by claiming the 2009 Open Cup in their first season. They set the bar for expansion teams very high in that first season and not until 2017 did a strong challenger emerge.

Spectacular success on the field and at the gate this season has many observers proclaiming  Atlanta United as the top expansion team of all time, an assertion rebuked by Bradley last week, and rightly so. AUFC might be the most fun team to watch in league history – and if not No. 1, certainly at least in the top five – but until the playoffs play out a valid comparison in competitive terms can’t be made.

At this juncture, however, a look at how all those 15 teams have fared in their expansion seasons does certify the Atlanta accomplishment as remarkable even when its league-leading, record-bound average attendance of 47,239 is set aside.

MLS expansion team rankings (1998-2007)

1. Chicago* (1998) 18-3-11 3rd (12) Champion
2. Atlanta United (2017) 15-8-7 3rd (22) ?
3. Seattle (2009) 12-7-11 4th (15) Lost in conf. semis
4. Orlando City (2015) 12-14-8 14th (20) Did not qualify
5. Montreal (2012) 12-16-6 12th (19) Did not qualify
6. Portland (2011) 11-14-9 12th (18) Did not qualify
7. NYC FC (2015) 10-17-7 17th (20) Did not qualify
8. Miami* (1998) 10-17-5 8th (12) Lost in conf. semis
9. Minn. United (2017) 9-15-5 19th (22) ?
10. San Jose (2008) 8-13-9 14th (14) Did not qualify
11. Philadelphia (2010) 8-15-7 14th (16) Did not qualify
12. Vancouver (2011) 6-18-10 18th (18) Did not qualify
13. Toronto FC (2007) 6-17-7 13th (13) Did not qualify
14. Real Salt Lake (2005) 5-22-5 11th (12) Did not qualify
15. Chivas USA (2005) 4-22-6 12th (12) Did not qualify

Note: Rank is a team’s standing based on overall record.
*Records of Miami and Chicago are  adjusted for result after 90 minutes. MLS dropped shootout after the 1999 season.

Just getting into the playoffs, which Atlanta United is on the brink of accomplishing, pushes the Five Stripes ahead of 10 predecessors along with fellow debutant Minnesota United, which is technically still the hunt but destined to fall short.

Still, as the chart shows, the Loons have done pretty well in terms of wins though they are also destined to finish near the bottom in the overall rankings, which most expansion teams have done. Four times a new team has posted the league’s worst record and only the ineptitude of expansion companion Chivas USA kept Real Salt Lake off the bottom when those teams joined MLS in 2005.

Since those dire days, the procession of expansion teams has steadily pushed the envelope on and off the field. Not every new team has jumped into the league with its own stadium and ambitious ownership and lots of victories but that is the general trend. Five years after winning just five games, RSL had its own stadium and a league championship.

When he agreed to fund the Sounders entry into MLS as its primary investor, entertainment mogul Joe Roth boldly proclaimed that he expected them to win from the get-go and hired head coach Sigi Schmid, who had just won his second MLS Cup with Columbus. Schmid led the Sounders to four MLS Cups and laid the groundwork for a first MLS Cup title they won last year.

In 2011, the dual entries of Portland and Vancouver brought the Cascadia Cup into the modern soccer consciousness. A year later, bold and brash Canadian businessman Joey Saputo and Montreal Impact escalated tensions in the Eastern Conference in general and eastern Canada in particular. After an expansion lull -- by league standards -- in 2015 MLS returned to Florida by promoting Orlando City from USL and adding a rival in New York for the Red Bulls.

The debate regarding Atlanta United as the best or most successful or most whatever team in league history won’t be settled by its playoff fate. Comparisons with the Fire in its expansion season take you back two full decades, to a starkly different soccer world and American landscape.

With just 12 teams and schedule of 32 games, many of them decided by a gimmick dreamed up by American entrepreneurs two decades previous, MLS wasn’t anything like what it is today. (For the record, the Fire competed in just three games that went to the shootout and won two of them.)

Still, it’s notable that next year’s startup team, Los Angeles Football Club, has brought back Bradley to MLS for its launch. The incredible work of head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino and his staff, technical director Carlos Bocanegra, president Darren Eales, and the AUFC organization has no doubt generated more sizzle than any team in league history, and has made the 2017 MLS season one of its most memorable.

4 comments about "Atlanta United, best MLS expansion team ever? Not so fast".
  1. ROBERT BOND, September 28, 2017 at 8:52 a.m.

    i was at the game where, when the PA went out, the fans sang the anthem-in this age of rude jerks, this is the greatest pro sports teams of all time! giving up my 40 year American football tix(football for dummies) to support the ATL U!

  2. Mike Jacome replied, September 28, 2017 at 4:08 p.m.

    I get exactly what you are saying and i support your statement 100 percent.

  3. Fire Paul Gardner Now, September 28, 2017 at 9:44 a.m.

    I think this is the best expansion team ever. Clearly 2017 MLS is a lot better than 1998 MLS. But it's different being an "expansion" team when all of the other teams have only existed for two years. Atlanta is coming to a much more fully formed league with some teams in their 22nd seasons. Plus if you just compare the rosters, 2017 ATL is better.

  4. Mike Jacome replied, September 28, 2017 at 4:21 p.m.

    Not to mention that sometimes winning the MLS cup tends to involve a little bit more luck than winning the supporter's shield...You can be the best team in the league points wise at the end of the year but you will require quite bit of luck to also confirm that by winning the direct elimination style MLS Cup.

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