ATLANTA — This time, there was no need to take the plastic off the walls of the locker room or wheel the champagne cases out of sight or ship the T-shirts to a third world country. Finally, there were no curses, no second-guesses, no tears.
Major League Soccer may not be everyone’s idea of a major professional sport in the U.S., but make no mistake, what happened Saturday night counts for Atlanta. Maybe here more than it would have anywhere else.
In a city whose collective psyche has been crushed so many times by Super Bowl meltdowns, World Series choke jobs, crushing defeats in college football championship games and decades of NBA frustration, Atlanta United did what didn’t seem possible for a team from these parts.
They made it look easy. And then they celebrated, bringing more than 73,000 people in a raucous Mercedes-Benz Stadium along with them to a 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers that felt like a two-decade pressure release.
“It’s huge for us as a team, a club, an organization, but for us over the last week or two we’ve really heard what it means to give a championship to this city,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “So to be able to deliver that, there’s no greater feeling. It’s pretty cool.”
For those unfamiliar with Atlanta’s sports history, tortured is probably the best word to describe it.
The pinnacle, of course, was a 1995 World Series win for the Braves, which came in the midst of a 15-year run in which they won their division 14 times. While no titles can be taken for granted, it is an era remembered largely for what Atlanta left on the table, losing four World Series and three National League Championship Series despite being blessed with one of the best pitching staffs ever put together.
The Hawks were one of the NBA’s best teams for a stretch in the 1980s but kept running into Larry Bird’s Celtics, rebuilt, then rode the magic carpet to a 60-win season in 2015 only to get swept by LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals. The franchise’s only title came in 1958, a decade before it moved from St. Louis to Atlanta.
And then there are the Falcons, who finally made a Super Bowl in their 33rd year of existence (only to get blown out by the Denver Broncos) and then returned in 2016 only to suffer the biggest come-from-ahead loss in the game’s history. On a scale of 1 to 10 in sports pain inflicted, blowing a 28-3 lead to the Patriots that night was probably something like a 300.
“My first night in my new house in Atlanta, I went to bed at halftime of the Super Bowl and I’m not trying to be funny, I woke up and read the headlines and couldn’t believe what I saw,” said midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. “Hopefully we can transcend that past and move on to a new future for the city.”
But Atlanta United has been different, literally since the beginning when Falcons owner Arthur Blank announced in early 2014 he was building a new stadium that would house his NFL team and an MLS expansion franchise.
Though Atlanta has always had the reputation nationally as an indifferent sports town, that’s not exactly true. It’s actually a passionate sports town, but one that is fragmented perhaps more than any other major market because of how quickly it has grown over the last 20 years and how many transplants make up its population.
Someone who moves to Atlanta to work for a Fortune 500 company like Coca-Cola or Delta Air Lines or SunTrust Banks may adopt it as their new home, but their sports allegiances were largely already formed by growing up in Boston or Los Angeles or St. Louis or wherever.
But Atlanta United hit on two key things: The city’s younger, more urbane demographic that is naturally drawn to a sport like soccer and the fact that very few people had a previous attachment to an MLS team.
And the people running the Atlanta United made all the right moves, from branding and promotions to building top-class facilities to spending big money on players like Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. From the team’s very first game, which drew 55,000 people to Georgia Tech’s football stadium to the MLS attendance records it would set along the way, the passion was there and the love affair was real.
“The way those guys have embraced and lifted us, motivated us, they don’t even know,” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “It’s incredible, and that’s why they deserve it. This is absolutely for Atlanta and Arthur Blank and all these people that have gotten us to this point. The way the fans have embraced us and identified with the club and lifted the club, it’s incredible and it means so much not just to me, but I’m pretty sure to all of us.”
And yet, there was real pressure on Atlanta to deliver on Saturday. Manager Tata Martino announced before the playoffs he was leaving after the season and is expected to coach the Mexican national team. Almiron, a 24-year old Paraguayan star who scored 12 goals this season, is rumored to be headed to the English Premier League. As long as Blank is involved, Atlanta is going to keep investing and drawing big crowds, but you never know how long the championship window stays open.
Plus, there were all those ghosts of titles lost to contend with.
“I mean, that’s what people say, but i’m from Boston. They were supposedly cursed as well and we’ve been enjoying the last 15 years up,” said team captain Michael Parkhurst “Most of us aren’t from here, so we don’t know the pain they’ve been through and I’m just happy we could come through with them tonight because there were a lot of anxious and stressed out fans out there.”
The stress level, of course, only went up when Atlanta took a 1-0 lead on a Martinez goal in the 39th minute after controlling play most of first half. Then, when Portland started to push in the second, those nerves started to fray again. Only when Franco Escobar converted a beautiful header pass by Martinez off a set piece to make it 2-0 did Atlanta start to exhale.
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