For a league that’s yet to put a team in Sin City, there’s something very Vegas-like about Major League Soccer team names. Clubs present themselves as ersatz, Americanized versions of European institutions, just like the strip’s hotels. For The Venetian, Paris and Caesar’s Palace, see the FCs and Uniteds of MLS. See Real Salt Lake.
No need to go to the old continent – we’ve remade it for you in the desert, and it’s a lot cheaper and more convenient. OK, there’s no tradition, no history – but there’s parking, air conditioning and nachos.
From this mentality spurts Atlanta United FC, the name of the franchise that’s joining in 2017, as revealed by SI.com last week. Not the Atlanta Phoenix, the Atlanta Sodas, the Atlanta Cable Newsers, the Atlanta Charms or the Atlanta Megachurchers. After the word “Atlanta,” nothing to do with Atlanta at all. A name that is entirely generic and even unoriginal within MLS, which has D.C. United and, soon, Minnesota United.
The word United has its origins in English teams combining — uniting — more than a hundred years ago. There’s a logic to its use in England that is absent in Atlanta’s case, unless you want to make a tenuous argument about “unity” having a special importance in the Deep South. As for FC instead of SC: it’s an obvious British affectation in a league that’s named Major League Soccer, not Major League Football.
“We wanted a name that is authentic,” Atlanta president (and British person) Darren Eales told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying that the team had listened to fan opinion via surveys. You wonder if the club would have listened to the fans if they’d demanded the team be called the Atlanta Sprawl, or the Atlanta Peaches. It’s an especially bland choice considering Eales used to work for Tottenham Hotspur, a club which takes pride in its distinctively weird moniker.
And authentic to who? Not the citizens of Georgia. It’s only authentic if you believe that the British flavor is soccer’s original recipe and the best meals are cooked with its ingredients. Granted, England was the first nation to codify and develop the sport, but that was in the Victorian era. Pretty sure the patent’s expired by now. There’s no sense of obligation to slavishly follow their conventions.
Lacking its own habits at birth, it would have been logical for MLS to start off being heavily influenced by European traditions then become more Americanized as it grew older, stronger and more self-assured. But the reverse happened. MLS today aims to distance itself from its shaky, uncool, apple pie past (Kansas City Wizards, atrocious jerseys, shootouts) by co-opting European stylings (Sporting Kansas City, better kits, no more fear of ties). It wants to depict itself as a serious, credible league, so it looks to Europe, location of the most serious and credible teams.
But it’s importing alien terminology, which ironically seems to undermine that mission by suggesting a lack of confidence in the native. Do you want the team to reflect MLS and America, or are you secretly hoping that you can pretend that Atlanta United FC is in the English Premier League because it’s got an English name?
It comes from the same impulse as the urge to sign aging European stars (hey, Andrea! What’s up, Steven? How’s it going, Frank?) because they must be good for MLS, since they’re famous and played for big clubs. And that may well be a perfectly fine, solid strategy. But it also influences how the league is perceived from overseas. And everything starts with the name.
This tribute tendency is normal throughout the planet, of course. There’s nothing inherently wrong or unusual about it. There are teams named Arsenal in Brazil, Argentina, Ghana, Lesotho and elsewhere. Juventus play in black and white stripes because they copied the jerseys of Notts County. As a legacy of Britain’s empire and its role in building the sport, Uniteds and FCs are all over the planet. It’s an international sport, with players and ideas imported and exported all over the planet.
We can assume that MLS’s brand gurus and marketers know what they’re doing. Maybe this is what most fans want. It seems to be a trend: the league has just added the very literal New York City FC and Orlando City SC. It looks like we’re getting a team called Los Angeles FC. Classic, safe choices that will probably never seem dated or gauche, even as they are reminiscent of European clubs that are bigger and better.
But in a country known for the extraordinary diversity of its team names (Maryland Terrapins, Sugar Land Skeeters, and a thousand others), Atlanta United FC tells us nothing about the character or culture of its home city, and everything about where MLS is still looking for inspiration.