ATLANTA — It felt more like a Super Bowl than an MLS Cup final did the domestic league’s 23rd title match, won on Saturday night by hometown darlings Atlanta United 2-0 over the Portland Timbers, ending almost a quarter-century of suffering for the city’s title-starved sports fans.
With more than 73,000 fans packed into sparkling Mercedes-Benz Stadium, this outlier of club offered a glimpse into what other MLS cities might look like many years in the future, right here in 2018. Thank goodness the home team didn’t blow it.
“We came in such big favorites and that’s difficult,” Five Stripes veteran captain Michael Parkhurst, a loser of four previous finals, said afterward as champagne dripped down his face. “Just because you go out there and spend the money, doesn’t always lead to success.”
It’s true. Storybook endings are rare in sports, not least in MLS, a league in which a longtime commitment to parity and a soon-to-be scrapped playoff format have ensured more often than not that the best team didn’t win it all.
Then again, that seems to be changing. Deep-pocketed Toronto FC reached the two previous MLS finals, losing the first in agonizing fashion before finally reaching the summit last year. Atlanta was even more deserving this year, and that goes both for the city and a team that was expertly assembled before United’s maiden season in 2017 and underwritten by owner Arthur Blank’s billions.
“Over the last week or two, we’ve really heard what it means to the city, to be able to give a championship to this city. So to be able to deliver that, there’s no greater feeling,” said Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who spent nearly a decade in the English Premier League before being lured back to his home country to backstop the most ambitious expansion project in MLS history.
Still, success, or at least this level of success, was barely fathomable, let alone guaranteed. Yet somehow Atlanta United has managed to far exceed all of their own lofty expectations, both on and off the field, less than two years after playing their first game.
“It just took the right combination of city, of venue, of training ground, of players most importantly,” Guzan added. “And it all started with a vision from Arthur. He’s the man behind all this.”
Along the way, the club barely put a foot wrong. They did their homework before signing dynamic young South Americans Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez. They brought in proven MLSers like Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz as defensive anchors behind an all-out attack. That due diligence paid off. Asked when he realized how good his new squad could be, left back Greg Garza shared an anecdote from his first training session in Atlanta
“We were doing crossing and finishing [drills] and I crossed the ball to Josef Martinez and he biked it from like the top of the 18, upper 90,” garza said. “I was like ‘Jesus, this guy’s a killer.'”
Martinez was named the league’s best player this season after scoring 31 regular season goals, shattering a 22-year-old record. He had the game winner (plus an assist) on Saturday to take home MLS Cup MVP honors, too.
The team’s consistency on the field over its first two seasons meant that instead of losing casual fans as the novelty wore off, as often happens with expansion teams across all sports, Atlanta United’s fan base continued to explode. Including the finale, the club drew more than 70,000 fans eight times this seasons.
Perhaps outgoing coach Tata Martino put it best.
“This club had a plan from the very beginning,” Martino said in his postgame press conference, and the Argentine would know, having previously worked at the very highest levels of the world’s most popular sport, first with Barcelona, then with Argentina’s national team. “The important thing is this club never modified anything from those plans that they had told me, and that is very important. It’s what makes this club very successful, is that the club had a plan and the directors have followed that plan to a T.
“The most satisfying thing for me is to be able to fulfill all the plans that the club presented to me at the beginning,” continued Martino, who is leaving the club, reportedly for Mexico’s national team job. “We have the best training facilities in the league. We have the best team in the league, so as a club, they gave the coaching staff absolutely everything you need to be successful.”
Atlanta United has set a new standard for what an MLS team can be these last two years, raising the threshold for what’s possible that was set by Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders a decade ago. With the trophy in hand, the bar has been set. It’s now on the rest of the league to try to catch up.
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