Soccer seasons in America last longer than the entire run of “Friends.” Atlanta United began its latest journey long ago on March 3, back in the spring when everyone was picking the Braves to finish third or fourth and a full three months before the Hawks drafted Luka Doncic and turned him into a haunting asterisk.
And the beginning was so inauspicious, United opening with the worst loss of its infancy, 4-0 at Houston.
Saturday, at long last, having put so much physical capital into the prior nine months – the trip-up in Texas excluded – United has this one big return on investment.
A home game for the MLS championship.
Versus the Timbers of Portland. My guess is that chainsaws will be confiscated at the gate. Although it is soccer, and its rules for fan deportment do seem to be a little different.
In case any of those from around the MLS circuit tuning into its championship game haven’t already heard about Atlanta’s fevered following for this team, they’ll soon enough find out. They’ll discover the same thing Greg Garza did when he signed on with the then-expansion outfit just two seasons ago.
“I never imagined Atlanta would be a city that would make soccer this big,” said the United defender, Texas-born and Mexican-trained in the ways of pro soccer.
Saturday night, it’s going to be full and loud and filled with a youthful, diverse energy that has marked the United audience as something different from every other Atlanta game-day crowd. Everyone will be standing, as if there were briars growing from their expensive seats. Flags will be waving. Chants will fill the room. There’s no need to manufacture noise or gin up excitement at even those United games that don’t come with a trophy at the end. So, imagine the ruckus when a title is at stake.
There is no love like new love. And because of that, we’ll witness a level of sporting passion Saturday inside Mercedes-Benz that is purer and more honest than most. Yes, that certainly includes February, when the Super Bowl comes calling.
The Falcons only wish they could inspire the customers like this.
In an extraordinary first two seasons, one of the most extraordinary facets of United has been its fan base. Record crowds have been the norm, and they are an equal partner in the Atlanta soccer experience. They have surrounded games in impressionistic explosions of color. These fans, like the Alps in “The Sound of Music,” have provided a pretty spectacular setting for the show.
Having well and truly earned the home-pitch advantage, how much, then, will it be worth to the home team? Will the setting ultimately matter?
“Just look at the home games we’ve played, look at the fans. I think it’s worth a lot,” United midfielder Julian Gressel said.
“The way the fans come into the stadium and give us the support they give us is incredible. I’d get intimidated if I had to play here (as a visitor). I imagine that teams come here and are a bit intimidated by the whole crowd and the environment. In that way a little bit of an advantage. At the same time, we haven’t been able to beat Portland and they haven’t been able to beat us (they tied 1-1 earlier this year). It’s 90 minutes to win a trophy and all the matters is inside the lines.”
United fought for the right to play this game here. It banished the losing streak – none of its seven losses came consecutively. It would have set the record for points in a season if not for the one team ahead of it, the New York Red Bulls. Then, United went out and personally eliminated that obstacle in the semis.
All that good work just has to translate into some tangible advantage to playing at home, right?
Nothing’s owed this team, except the stage. It, after all, was just born the day before yesterday and has suffered none of the traumas that infest the memory other franchises in town.
But for these fans, that ones that, according to United midfielder Kevin Kratz, “are setting a new standard for MLS,” some reward would be nice.
And even those in town who have thus far successfully resisted the tug of soccer are invited to join a quite raucous party.
“I’m pretty sure all of Atlanta will be behind us Saturday,” Kratz said.
“Then it’s 90 minutes up to us.”