In 2017, Atlanta United FC played its inaugural MLS season and the team immediately won the hearts of native Atlantans and casual MLS supporters alike. Equipped with owner Arthur Blank’s keen business sense, United built a southern soccer dynasty that has dazzled the league with their attacking firepower and their entertaining brand of soccer.
While the 2017 MLS Cup evaded their grasp in their first season (narrowly losing to Columbus Crew SC on penalties), it was unprecedented for an expansion team to advance as much as United did. Moreover, the club took pride in being named by Forbes as the most valuable MLS franchise in only their second season, worth about $330 million.
But Blank has not broken the bank on established superstars (consider former midfielder David Beckham’s $30 million deal with Los Angeles Galaxy), and he has fostered a successful team culture with immediate results rather than building a team driven by individual talents. As a testament to their team rather than individual success, Atlanta United players have five of the top 25 best-selling MLS jerseys according to Forbes. No other team has more than three.
To put their astonishing success in perspective with European teams, Atlanta United has drawn more fans to their games than five-time Premier League champions Chelsea FC. Although they narrowly lost to Columbus Crew SC on penalties last year, Atlanta is in prime position to make a deep run in the playoffs this year after narrowly missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the New York Red Bulls in their second season.
One of the key factors to Atlanta’s success has been Blank. Throughout his investment in United, Blank has emphasized six core principles through his philosophy, according to Inc.
“Put people first, listen and respond, include everyone, innovate continuously, lead by example and give back to others,” Blank said.
Leading by example, Blank was determined to build a successful team with a talented squad, experienced coach and veteran administrative staff.
United turned the collective heads of international football when they signed former FC Barcelona manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino. After just two seasons with the team, Martino’s success with Atlanta earned him the manager position on the Mexican national team according to ESPN. Martino will leave after United’s postseason run as a club legend, having established a remarkable precedent for success and making the playoffs in both of his seasons in charge. Martino has groomed forward Josef Martinez and midfielder Miguel Almiron into world-class players capable of excelling in top European leagues.
Blank also recruited former Tottenham Hotspur F.C. executive Darren Eales. With experience at one of England’s most successful teams, Eales dedicated himself to building a solid team foundation for the MLS newcomers. Before United even began playing, Eales spent about five days per week scoping out Atlanta bars and pubs — which he jokingly dubbed “Pub Crawl Our Way to Success” — to connect with the community and explore ideas about how to market the club effectively.
While Atlanta is not nationally known as the best sports city, Blank seeks to change that. For one, United defied the MLS trend to splurge on veteran, established stars who carry the team. For example, Orlando City SC signed former Ballon d’Or winner (awarded to the best soccer player in the world) and Real Madrid midfielder Ricardo Kaka to kickstart their entrance into MLS in 2015. But despite Kaka’s presence, the team failed to make the playoffs.
Moreover, Blank has overseen remarkable success in organizing his team like a startup by investing in players with great potential and earning the trust of fans. For instance, United’s key marketing campaign features the motto “Unite and Conquer,” in which United players are featured with “Conquer” and fan photos accompany “Unite.” The campaign is hard to argue against in terms of building unity and passion in the team.
United’s striking playing style has also factored substantially into the club’s success and huge fanbase. In an interview with The New York Times, Eales emphasized that the club wants to prioritize playing exciting soccer games to draw in fans and create a passionate fan atmosphere.
“We’re in the entertainment industry, so let’s build a team that is attacking,” Eales said. “If we’re going to win a close game, I’d rather win 4-3 than 1-0.”
This approach contrasts European teams like Atletico Madrid, which are known for winning at all costs, even if the fans get bored by a 1-0 scoreline. Atlanta has consistently delivered on its promise, with Almiron and Martinez frequenting the goal and assist leaderboards.
Fans have shown their gratitude at home games with arguably the most passionate and vocal supporters section in the league. Atlanta only lost twice at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the 2018 season, tied with three other teams for the least number of home losses. This phenomenon creates a sporting symbiosis that fuels game excitement and fan passion.
After beating the Red Bulls 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Final first leg, United are well on their way to rewarding their diehard fan base and intelligent management with silverware this season. Atlanta will look to book their place in the MLS Cup final with the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final against Red Bulls on Nov. 11.