ATLANTA — “Twenty-three years! Twenty-three years!”
They shrieked and they cheered as the celebratory train whistle echoed through Mercedes-Benz Stadium and that rarest of words — WIIIIN — marched around the stadium’s halo screen in 58-foot-high letters. The faces of the Atlanta United fans were slick with a mix of sweat and beer and confetti and tears. They weren’t just celebrating a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers in the 2018 MLS Cup. They were dancing into an exorcism, reveling in the joy that, for once, Atlanta didn’t blow a damn lead in a championship game.
Let’s run down how we got to this point, shall we?
1. Coming into Saturday night, Atlanta’s professional sports teams had completed 175 combined seasons and managed just one championship: the 1995 Atlanta Braves. Counting Saturday’s game, Atlanta teams have only even competed for a championship eight times. We’re not exactly talking Titletown here.
2. Losing’s bad enough. But Atlanta has a habit of losing with spectacular disgrace. The Braves blew a two-games-to-none lead in the 1996 World Series. The Falcons blew Super Bowl LI after leading the Patriots 28-3. (Again: sorry, America. Our bad.) And if you broaden the lens a bit and include the nearby University of Georgia, why, you’re bringing in another delightful example of an Atlanta-area team setting itself on fire while leading in a championship game earlier this year.
3. So, yeah: in Atlanta, no lead’s ever comfortable. Ever.
4. Which brings us to Saturday night. Atlanta United are the city’s newest team, the co-tenant with the Falcons of the astonishing Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Like the Falcons (and the Georgia Bulldogs), they sport a familiar red-and-black color scheme. Unlike those two teams, they’re only two years old, innocent of all the catastrophe and drama that weigh down every other franchise in this town.
5. Most of Atlanta’s millions of residents weren’t born here, and most moved here with sports alliances already hardwired. You can get a Red Sox or Knicks or Steelers fan to move here for the weather and the job opportunities, but you can’t get them to root for the Braves, Hawks or Falcons. Old loyalties die hard.
6. However, when you’ve got a brand-new team in a league not generationally entrenched in the American consciousness, you’ve got an opportunity. And the United have maximized every bit of that opportunity, drawing the most diverse demographic cross-section of fans in any sport in the city and instantly becoming a sports fixture.
7. Part of that’s because the United have made going to a match so much damn fun. Unlike baseball, where the game itself occupies the attention of maybe 40 percent of fans in attendance at any given moment, or football, where there’s a pervading sense that you’re lucky the NFL’s even allowing you in the building, soccer’s a lower-case-d democratic sport, where chants, cheers and passion burble up from the general-admission stands. Put it this way: there’s no need for a scoreboard to fire up the fans at a United game, no need to tell them when or how to cheer.
8. Credit, too, to the United for crafting a gameday experience that’s part SEC tailgate, part European football, and part Southern tent revival. There’s an infinite possible combination of slogans (“Unite and Conquer,” “We Gon’ Shine,” “We Ready”), flags, chants, and scarves. (Personal favorite: a peach-colored flag reading BLESS YOUR HEART. If you don’t get its very specific meaning, come hang out down south a spell.) It’s a striking difference to most Atlanta games, where the home team does well to have 80 percent of its fans pulling for the home team. Saturday night, the Portland fans in attendance were so few you could literally pick them out of the crowd individually, scarf by kelly-green scarf.
9. Before we get to the game itself, a brief confession: I grew up in Atlanta. I literally cannot remember a time when I wasn’t an Atlanta sports fan. And while that may have you questioning whether my parents deserve jail time for cruelty, the truth is this: you weather the losing and you celebrate the few high points, because winning, like snow, isn’t something that comes your way very often in Georgia.
10. It wasn’t snowing outside the stadium before the game began, but it was damn close. The weather in the hours before the game was the kind of miserable, 40-degree rain that kills tailgates, not that a few hardy souls didn’t try. Fireworks popped off a couple hours before the game over near Centennial Park, and a soggy tailgate played a dance-remix version of “Pour Some Sugar On Me” in the shadow of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But most everyone huddled against the rain and got inside as soon as possible.
11. They crowd into their seats in record numbers — 73,019, to be exact, the largest crowd ever to see a soccer championship. For those smug types who sniff that soccer’s not a top-level American sport: That’s a larger crowd than the last four Super Bowls, a larger crowd than any NBA game that ever counted, a larger crowd than all but one NHL game in history. Soccer now stands on an equal footing with America’s other major sports, and if you’re not yet aware of that, you probably still listen to your classic rock on CDs. Catch up with the zeitgeist, friend, it’s fun here in the 21st century.
12. Soccer doesn’t suffer fools, whiners or smartasses. The general-admission “Supporters’ Section” at one end of MBS tells you straight up that there will be standing, cheering and flags there. Moreover, signs warn that “Visiting Team Apparel Is Not Permitted In This Area.” It’s a sound rule — and one that would empty out half the damn stadium when, say, the Cowboys are in town.
13. Atlanta always welcomes an uptempo offense, and in the first half, that’s exactly what the United ran out. The ball remains in the Portland half of the field for most of the half, with Atlanta totaling four shots on goal to Portland’s one and winning 72 percent of all duels. “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy,” reads one sign in the Supporters’ Section, and Atlanta appears to be taking that motto to heart.
14. And then, at the 38:51 mark, it happens: Multiple defensive breakdowns leave Josef Martinez alone with the ball and nothing between him and the net but an overmatched goalie. Martinez pokes the ball past Portland’s Jeff Attinella, and MBS lights up with what might be the loudest cheers in its history. And if you think anyone in the stadium is comfortable, please reread the opening lines in this installment.
JOSEF MARTINEZ GIVES ATLANTA THE LEAD!!! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/2d2IwS9yps
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) December 9, 2018
15. Here’s why: Barely three minutes later, Portland’s Jeremy Ebobisse very nearly sneaks an equalizer past Atlanta goalie Brad Guzan — the ball rolls around untouched in front of the goal for a heart-stopping second — and when he doesn’t, when the United enter the half up a goal, something starts to flicker in the hearts of Atlanta fans. Something that feels like maybe this time could be different …
16. What’s so tough about Atlanta teams is the way they trick you with hope. Fourteen times the Atlanta Braves marched into the postseason in the 1990s and 2000s, and 13 of those times, they vomited on their own cleats. The Hawks built 60-win machines that got crushed into scrap, first by Larry Bird and later by LeBron James. The Falcons do everything possible to convince you they have the ability to win except, you know, win.
17. I’ll be honest with you: even now, hours after the final horn, I’m still not even sure the United aren’t going to blow this game.
18. Then come those crucial opening minutes of the second half. Portland surges onto the pitch a renewed team, determined to punch Atlanta in the mouth and even up the score. And they very nearly do it, too, attempting one shot and seeing two more blocked in the space of less than 10 minutes.
19. But then comes the prettiest play of the game, a set play that ends with Franco Escobar punching in a goal from the right side to put Atlanta up 2-0. Everyone outside of the state of Georgia assumes that means this game’s over. No one within 200 miles of Atlanta does.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) December 9, 2018
20. Here’s another for the reversal-of-fortune department: Escobar, as he slides and pokes the ball past Attinella, is in almost the exact same point on the field where, one week before, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts had barreled through the Georgia defense for a go-ahead touchdown with 64 seconds left. That game marked, yep, yet another blown Atlanta team lead.
21. And then the strangest thing happens. The crowd somehow grows more nervous with a 2-0 lead than a 1-0 one. That seems, on its face, absurd; in soccer as in life, two goals are better than one.
22. No one would admit it, but everyone knows why throats and other orifices are tightening: If the United blow this lead … well, no need to finish the sentence. Related: Around this point, Fox runs a graphic indicating that the United have never lost when holding a 2-0 lead. Great.
23. With about 10 minutes left in the game, I head from the glassed-in aquarium of the press box to the open-air chaos of the Supporters’ Section. Along the way, I see concession stands beginning to unbox championship merchandise. This, along with previously announced plans for a championship parade, seems karmically unwise.
24. Miguel Almiron, one of the keys to this Atlanta surge — despite what one sign said, you can’t call it a “resurgence” if there’s never been a lull — gets the hero’s walkoff for a substitution at the end of regulation. He likely won’t be back in Atlanta — riches await in the Premier League — but for now, he leaves the pitch a champion.
25. And then the clock hits 90:00 as delirious fans dance and shout. The P.A. announces that there will be five minutes of stoppage time, and boos cascade around the stadium. “That’s a lot of dog s—,” says one fan, or maybe he says “Dawg s—,” either one would work.
26. That final train whistle, an homage to the trains that run past the stadium as well as the city of Atlanta’s history as a railroad hub, sounds as fans shout with the joy that comes from throwing off two decades of pain. Two fans, each taking selfies, back into each other, turn around, and embrace before continuing to document the moment. It’s sheer bliss, New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras and Christmas morning all at once, and tears flow almost as freely as beer.
27. The rotation of songs playing during the trophy celebration include Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” Tina Turner’s “Simply The Best,” and Kool & The Gang’s “Celebrate.” It’s like they’d had these exact songs on ice for three decades, waiting to thaw them out.
28. On the way out, fans line up 30 deep for championship shirts, scarves and hats bearing Atlanta’s name. For the first time in more than two decades, that merch won’t be getting shipped overseas. Fans hold up their 2018 MLS CUP CHAMPIONS, and every time — every single time — whoever is nearby cheers loud enough to scare away ghosts.
Hey, how about that … we ended up with 28 points. Let’s just tack another 3 on there for old times’ sake:
1. Atlanta wins.
2. Atlanta Wins.
3. ATLANTA WINS.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Brown: Remembering Luis Valbuena and his love of baseball
• Warriors remind everyone in NBA who’s boss
• Reports: Ayton, Booker ‘exchanged words’ in front of media after Suns loss
• Which college football players are sitting out bowl games?