ATLANTA – No Cristiano Ronaldo, no problem.
The 23rd Major League Soccer All-Star game more than lived up to its significant pre-match hype even without of one of the biggest headliners in the global game, a record crowd of 72,312 packing Mercedes-Benz Stadium to watch some of MLS’s best players lose a penalty shootout to Italian powerhouse Juventus following a 1-1 draw.
It was obvious from the start that the vast majority of those in attendance weren’t there to cheer on the decorated visitors, but rather the hosts. The world’s most popular sport has taken Georgia’s capital by storm since Atlanta United burst onto the scene last year. And in front of an international television audience on Wednesday night, that passion was on display for all to see.
The loudest roars of all, naturally, were reserved for the hometown heroes. Atlanta United and MLS All-Star coach Tata Martino picked three United players for his starting lineup in goalkeeper Brad Guzan, playmaker Miguel Almiron and striker Josef Martinez, who came into the match just four goals shy of MLS’s all-time single season record.
All three were involved early on. Almiron danced past a defender on the touchline. The hard-charging Martinez sent the first real buzz through the arena with a powerful run about 10 minutes in, only to send his shot wide of Wojciech Szczesny’s net. Moments later, at the opposite end of the field, a routine save by Guzan was met with the now-familiar “GUUUUU” chant from the home supporters.
Any lingering doubts about the locals’ loyalties were erased during a five-minute stretch midway through the first half. Polite applause was the reaction when Andrea Favilli got his head on Matheus Pereira’s left-footed cross and sent a glancing header past Guzan to open the scoring. But when Martinez – who signed with Atlanta before its 2017 expansion season following a mostly unremarkable three-year stint with Juve’s crosstown rival Torino — got on the end of a mad scramble in the box to stab home the equalizer, the visceral release made the closed roof at “The Benz” feel as if it would blow off into the rainy Atlanta night.
As promised, Martino made a slew of changes after the first-half hour. Martinez left to a rousing ovation. But the game hardly suffered. For a glorified friendly match featuring one shorthanded team in preseason form – beside Ronaldo, several other Juve regulars who participated in the World Cup have yet to re-join the rest of the squad – and one that trained as a unit just twice before meeting the 34-time Italian champs, it was a surprisingly entertaining contest. The back-and-forth action stood in stark contrast to some of the more pedestrian performances we’ve seen during the ongoing International Champions Cup, which features Juve and many other elite European clubs.
The pace slowed down late in the second half as heavy legs set in. But with the wave going around the lower bowl as the clock ticked toward full time, it was clear nobody in the building was missing Ronaldo, who moved to Juventus from Real Madrid last month in a $117 million transfer.
In any case, the MLS squad was playing without some world-famous names of its own. The LA Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic begged out of the match on Monday, two days after scoring a hat-trick against Orlando City, citing the Galaxy’s packed schedule and injury concerns. Having only joined D.C. United last month, Wayne Rooney understandably wasn’t included.
No matter. Nothing was about to spoil a match that served as a celebration of the soccer culture that has taken over an unlikely region — not even the missed spot kick by Bradley Wright-Phillips that set up Mattia De Sciglio’s winner. These fans got their money’s worth on Wednesday. They went home happy.
In the process, the city of Atlanta proved to be the biggest star of them all.
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