ATLANTA — Josef Martinez’s goal six minutes before halftime stood up as the winner as Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers and capture MLS Cup in just their second season of existence.
Here are three takeaways from the match:
Atlanta United is a worthy champion…
Give the Portland Timbers credit. Playing in front of the more than 70,000 fans at jam-packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the visitors more than held their own against the Five Stripes’ vaunted attack for most of the first half. They were able to keep Atlanta’s talisman, Miguel Almiron, from finding room to run through the middle of the field, funneling the lightning-quick Paraguayan down the right wing. On the only occasion where Almiron broke free following what probably should’ve been a free kick for Portland, Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell immediately chopped him down.
Slowly but surely, however, Atlanta’s pressure on the ball began to create turnovers. Martinez went down in the box, although replays showed that referee Alan Kelly was correct in not whistling for a penalty. Darlington Nagbe, who won an MLS Cup with Portland in 2015, registered the first shot for either team soon after, about 23 minutes in. Martinez played Nagbe through, but the pass was a little too strong. But the chances were clearly starting to come. Only a brilliant save by Timbers keeper Jeff Attinella from Almiron’s spectacular bicycle kick from a Greg Garza cross — off another turnover — kept the game scoreless.
But the Timbers were finally punished when Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst slid in to knock the ball away from young striker Jeremy Ebobisse and to Golden Boot winner Martinez, who was lurking behind Ridgewell. The Venezuelan took his time to round Attinella and fire home the only goal the hosts would need:
JOSEF MARTINEZ GIVES ATLANTA THE LEAD!!! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/2d2IwS9yps
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) December 9, 2018
Ebobisse had a golden opportunity to atone for his error, level the score and stop Atlanta’s momentum cold, but United keeper was there to made a timely diving save and preserve the home team’s advantage heading into halftime:
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) December 9, 2018
And when Franco Escobar got on the end of Martinez flick to put the hosts up 2-0 less than 10 minutes after the break, it was only a matter of time until Atlanta hoisted the trophy:
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) December 9, 2018
…And is now MLS’s undisputed standard bearer
Atlanta’s triumph was no happy accident. Even before the club played its first match in March of 2017, its intentions were clear: to upend the established order of MLS and redefine was was possible for one of the league’s clubs.
Saturday’s match was the culmination of a plan orchestrated from the start by beloved owner Arthur Blank, team president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra. With no expense too great for the billionaire Blank, Eales and Bocanegra lured former Argentina and Barcelona coach Tata Martino to Georgia, and along with the since departed Paul McDonough they assembled the most exciting and dynamic roster in league history, headlined by Almiron and Martinez. The club became just the third expansion team in MLS history to make the playoffs in its maiden season.
This year, their aim was clear. Win it all. They were the best team in the league for most of the season. And they were terrific throughout the 2018 playoffs despite the fact that Martino announced he’d be leaving the club at season’s end, easily dispatching New York City FC and the Supporters Shield-winning New York Red Bulls before reaching the summit on Saturday. Along the way, they set as new standard for what an MLS club can be.
Atlanta’s fans the biggest winners of all
United’s big win in front of 70,019 of their closest friends — a larger crowd than the last four Super Bowls — gave the long suffering sports city its first title since baseball’s Braves won the World Series way back in 1995.
No Atlanta team had sealed the deal since them. Blank’s other team, the NFL’s Falcons, had come close, reaching two Super Bowls over that span but losing them both. The Braves made it back to the Series twice in the years after winning their lone title but couldn’t pull off another title. The NBA’s Hawks never really came close.
But Atlanta rewarded its supporters for their record breaking support — the club set new attendance marks in each of its first two seasons — with a win for the ages. Martinez, the league’s regular season most valuable player, added to his individual trophy haul by also being named MVP of Saturday’s match. And while Martino and possibly Almiron won’t be back next year to help them defend their MLS Cup, only an idiot would bet against them doing it again next year.