Champion Atlanta United: The train has left the MLS station, and there's no turning back


John Adams/Icon Sportswire

Sports championships are a rare thing in Atlanta. So rare that soccer now leads all other major sports with two titles.

Fifty years after the Atlanta Chiefs won the first NASL title, Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers, 2-0, to win MLS Cup 2018.

The transplanted Braves and expansion Falcons were born in 1966, a year after Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium opened -- a minor-league baseball team named the Atlanta Crackers played there in 1965 -- but in 62 years since then they've won one championship between them -- the Braves' 1995 World Series championship.

A year after the Braves and Falcons started, the Braves owners launched the Chiefs. Like the Chiefs, Atlanta United won in its second season, but the comparisons end there.

The Chiefs drew 14,994 fans for their 3-0 win over the San Diego Toros to clinch the final series. Atlanta United drew 73,019 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the largest crowd ever for MLS Cup, largest stand-alone crowd in MLS history -- and larger than the crowds for the last four Super Bowls.

The NASL almost collapsed after 1968 -- it shrank to five teams and its executives sought refuge in the basement of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to plot the sport's future. MLS will grow to 24 teams in 2019, three new teams are in the works -- Miami, Nashville and Austin -- and a 28th team should be selected by the end of next year. Stopping at 28 now seems unlikely.

Leading the charge is Atlanta United. Only Seattle has come close to matching the crowds the Five Stripes draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and no team has spent on the international transfer market like Atlanta United has done.


Atlanta United Photo

It paid a reported $8 million for Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron from Lanus in 2017, and it spent more than $15 million on Argentine teenager Ezequiel Barco from Independiente in 2018. Atlanta United was so good and so deep and so secure in what it was doing that Coach Tata Martino ended up keeping Barco on the bench -- basically using him as a late-game sub for Almiron when the postseason arrived.

Like all the little touches that owner Arthur Blank put into $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the club's soccer bosses -- president Darren Eales, technical director Carlos Bocanegra and director of soccer operations Paul McDonough, who has since moved to Inter Miami -- and Martino then put the finishing touches on a lineup that produced an MLS champion after two seasons.

Martino loaded up on South Americans -- Venezuelan Josef Martinez and Argentines Eric Remedi, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Franco Escobar and Tito Villalba, another luxury item off the bench, to go  along with Almiron and Barco. Martinez, Almiron and Villalba came for Year 1. Remedi, Escobar and Barco came in 2018. Atlanta United brought in a pair of MLS veterans Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst who knew the league and had played in seven MLS Cups between them, and recruited a pair of foreign-based Americans, Greg Garza and Brad Guzan, who were ready to return home.

Atlanta United even got value out the SuperDraft, getting Julian Gressel with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft out of Providence College. Finally, it assembled a complicated package that included more $1 million in allocation money and an international player spot to pry Darlington Nagbe away from Portland after the 2017 season. Nagbe, who arrived by private jet, was the final piece for Martino, the player who provided balance in midfield, capable of both running with Almiron and Gressel and also pushing the pause button when things needed to settle down.


Atlanta United Photo

Martinez, the 2018 MLS MVP, was MVP of MLS Cup, scoring the first goal to finish with a league record 35 goals for the regular season and playoffs and assisting on the second goal. But he wasn't only hero in Saturday's final.

Parkhurst set up the first goal, stealing the ball from young Timbers striker Jeremy Ebobisse and playing it forward to Martinez. At the age of 34, Parkhurst, the Atlanta United captain, won his first MLS Cup in five tries.

The second goal was scored by Escobar,  who started the season at center back but was installed at right wing back for the playoffs when Martino went exclusively to a 5-3-2 formation. In other circumstances, Martino might have pushed Gressel back to right wing back and played Barco in front of him. But he didn't want to and didn't have to. The champions paid $15 million for a player and ended up hardly using him.

Martino will be gone, and so too surely Almiron. But Atlanta United won't be turning back.

Before the final, Atlanta supporters groups unfurled a tifo of a train with a “MLS 3.0” sign running over a Timbers scarf. The foil distributed in the stands behind the goal formed the MLS Cup logo and the signage read “We won’t stop. We want more.”

Indeed, the train has left the station, and there appears to be no stopping Atlanta United.

Dec. 8 in Atlanta
Atlanta United 2 Portland 0. Goals: Martinez 39, Escobar (Martinez, Almiron) 54.
Atlanta United -- Guzan; Gonzalez Pirez, Parkhurst, Larentowicz; Garza (McCann 90+2), Remedi, Nagbe, Escobar; Martinez (Villalba 76), Almiron (Barco 90+1), Gressel.
Portland -- Attinella, Valentin, Ridgewell, Mabiala, Villalba; Guzman (Powell 82), Chara; Blanco, Valeri, Polo (Asprilla 68); Ebobisse (Melano 59).
Yellow Cards: Atlanta United -- McCann 90+4; Portland -- Chara 80.
Referee: Alan Kelly. Assistants: Ian Anderson, Eric Weisbrod. 4th Official: Nima Saghafi. VAR: Christopher Penso.
Att.: 73,019.

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4 comments about "Champion Atlanta United: The train has left the MLS station, and there's no turning back".
  1. beautiful game, December 9, 2018 at 11:08 a.m.

    Timbers never showed up and showed a lack of discipline and energy that led to both United scores. Ebobisse heavy touch and lackadaisical effort to repossess the ball led to the first goal, and a mental defensive lapse on a United free kick led to the second goal. The game had too few moments of drama. The TV camera presentation was a farce of repeated close-ups which is a distarction and the commentary could not have been more winded and disingenuous...IMHO, nothing special on the pitch and the dressing from the TV and commentary booth typically blase.

  2. P T replied, December 9, 2018 at 10:39 p.m.

    Savarese was complaining because Diego Valeri was cleated somewhat fierce (followed by PDX fouling the ATL player) and should have a had a free kick outside the box. Which is the usual spot for some Portland theatrics - as they often are slumbering rather than lumbering and it takes a lucky moment to wake up their offense as it did in the SKC game. All-in-all a boring game because of the superb ball play that ATL showed and dominated the match. 

  3. frank schoon, December 9, 2018 at 11:59 a.m.

    Atlanta was by far the better team from the beginning to the end. They are a step above Portland as far as sophistication of play. Ball movement was much quicker and more successful, especially in small spaces. All I could say for Portland, Thank You for wearing not wearing those ugly green jerseys.  Portland had sense enough not to wear solid green jerseys playing on green field.... For the next season the MLS should outlaw the solid color green when playing on a green surface.
    I didn't like the Portland's coach Savarese complaining about ref calls after the game, for if anything this game had nothing to do about ref calls.
    I think Saverese needs to study the game tape and learn from it how to teach his players ,as a team , to be able to handle the ball better under pressure. 
    I think Nagbe had his best game ever, which means to me, don't give him the ball for that is not his strong point. He is not good in small areas where he is part of a passing triangle...that is not his forte...The commetator talk about him as if he is the Pirlo of the Atlanta United when instead he shouldn't have the ball. 
    About the commentating, too bad we don't have PICKUP commentating as we of learning commentating.
    The game was a positive for MLS soccer. It's a shame Tata is leaving, for he not only is a good coach but he knows what to look for in players, and is able to know good, young talent and most importantly he has South American connections for the player pipeline. Thereby ,leading me to suggest for the MLS to hire him as a consultant when it comes to looking bring in young South American talent.
    Atlanta had a good mixture of young, medium and older players, of which the attacking talented players had great ball handling abilities....

  4. R2 Dad replied, December 9, 2018 at 9:36 p.m.

    Haven't watched the match yet, glad to hear the refereeing wasn't the usual farce. 

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