Fifty years ago, a gathering of about 15,000 watched the Atlanta Chiefs win the North American Soccer League championship inside the old Atlanta Stadium. It was like the second half of the most confused twi-night doubleheader ever.
For the Chiefs couldn’t go on that day until the Braves had finished losing to the Dodgers, the stands were cleared and groundskeepers grudgingly shaved the pitching mound to fashion a proper soccer pitch.
A half century later, a MLS Cup record crowd of 73,019 trekked through a cold rain and elbowed its way into a domed and gilded palace downtown for the sole purpose of celebrating soccer. And while there, to celebrate something even more foreign to the traditional Atlanta sports landscape – another title. The first since the Braves World Series in 1995.
“Tonight, to see the joy we brought to the city of Atlanta and really the world of Major League soccer, it means a lot to me personally,” Atlanta United and Falcons owner Arthur Blank said.
Witness Atlanta’s Extraordinary Feet: Atlanta United 2, Portland 0 for the MLS Cup and the right to tell every Red Sox, Patriots or Warriors fan you know that a certain Southern city owns American professional soccer. That will have to be good enough for Atlanta’s sporting psyche for the time being.
First Saturday came the most appropriate goal perhaps in MLS Cup history – booted in by the league’s record-setting scorer and recently crowned MVP Josef Martinez.
By the 39th minute, Atlanta United had a lead that unlike other noted local franchises, it would not surrender. First the working man’s player, Michael Parkhurst, the player who had been to four previous MLS Cup finals only to lose them all, dislodged the ball from Portland’s Jeremy Ebobisse on the most significant slide in this town since Sid Bream in ’92.
The ball, as it so often did this season, found the flashiest of players, Martinez. Portland goaltender Jeff Attinella scrambled to reach the ball, but he’ll lose that race to Martinez every time. It left exposed one entire corner of the goal, an opening that Martinez could not miss. That lit the fuse for this massive crowd.
This was not a lead to be timidly protected, not that such a strategy would be Atlanta United’s style. For early in the second half, at the 54th minute, off a Martinez header that found the eager right foot of Franco Escobar, Atlanta United had a 2-0 lead. Yes, it was insurmountable. Such a word can be used on an Atlanta team.
“We scored on two kind of half-chances, and in a final if you take those chances and you’re up 2-0, that’s huge,” United defender Jeff Larentowicz said.
As for that Victory Log that Portland brings with it as a wooden talisman, perhaps you can find that today in the plywood section of your local Home Depot.
Just because Atlanta United won everything to win that mattered in only its second year of existence is no reason to think this MLS Cup final thing is going to be an annual celebration.
Honestly, it really isn’t this easy to win it all (the first time any Atlanta sportswriter has ever felt the need to write that sentence).
Atlanta United’s relatively instant success, leading to this Minute Rice of championships, shouldn’t be taken for granted in any way.
The league and this sport are far too volatile to assume that Saturday night is the way it will always be for Atlanta United.
For this also was the night this team bid ta-ta to “Tata,” manager Gerardo Martino overseeing his last game here. Only two years at the controls, Martino will nonetheless hold a special place among Atlanta’s coaches/managers. Let’s take stock: two seasons, two playoff appearances, one championship before probably taking over as Mexico’s national coach. That’s .500 career title average here. OK, somebody try to beat that.
This also figured to be the final time together for the attacking duo of Miguel Almiron and Martinez – the combination that defined Atlanta United’s very soul, the one that lent this team its flair. They were the pocket square for this suit, the Tabasco in this gumbo.
“Definitely the most talented duo I’ve ever played with,” Atlanta United’s captain Parkhurst said earlier this week. “So explosive, can change a game from nothing, create something from nothing. I get caught watching those guys when I should be organizing defensively.”
Every indication is that Almiron will be taking his talents abroad next year – because that’s what players of his caliber do.
To assume Saturday’s joy will be the standard fare from now forward would be just foolish. To assume anything going forward is wrong.
Just enjoy the moment.
“I’d say you could imagine something like this,” Larentowitcz said, “but experiencing it is something different.”
What a night this was for Martino. While he has stuck to his native Spanish while working here, some things don’t need translation. Like the joy in finishing a season with a championship, with so many runner-up finishes on his international resume.
“There have been a lot of disappointments,” Martino said. “There are also special moments, too.”
What a night for Parkhurst, finally winning this slippery, elusive cup.
What a night for Atlanta, now officially a hands-free city, with the title to prove it.
Given its standing in the league, Atlanta United winning the MLS Cup now oddly seems every bit as right and natural as it would be if Green Bay won the Lombardi Trophy again. As apt and expected as Tuscaloosa ruling college football.
A soccer town has its soccer title.
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