We’ve been spoiled by Big Events. In the 22 years after the Olympics, the biggies keep coming thicker and faster. To wit:
Jan. 8, 2018: The College Football Playoff title game between Georgia and Alabama. (If you don’t count overtime, they finished as co-champs.)
Feb. 3, 2019: The Super Bowl, surely between the Falcons, who play here on a regular basis, and the Patriots. (Have those two met before?)
April 4, 2020: The Final Four. The participants will be Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Villanova. (OK, that’s a guess.)
If you close your eyes and click your heels three times, it’s possible to envision a World Series in Cobb County ere long. You can, alas, click your heels until the cows come home and it won’t thrust the Hawks into the NBA finals, although their refurbished arena should be nice.
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We have lots of spiffy new buildings, lots of marquee events. We’d had a bunch of All-Star convocations before – two in baseball, two in basketball and one in hockey, the five coming in four different arenas/ballparks – but never one like Wednesday night’s. This was different. This was soccer.
Soccer is the game we Americans were supposed to hate, but – this not just in – our world keeps changing. It isn’t that those who loathed the sport have seen the light; it’s that a generation that never learned to hate the global brand of football have seen it and thought, “Hey, that’s pretty cool.”
The MLS has labored long to establish a foothold in a nation of sports fans who grew up knowing the seasons by the games people played – basketball and hockey in the winter, baseball in spring/summer, (American) football in the fall. Given that Atlanta has three of the four traditional major sports – R.I.P., NHL – and is the epicenter of college football, our burg might have appeared a tough sell for something new and different. But our Atlanta isn’t our grandparents’ Atlanta, and this city stands as the jewel in the MLS crown.
The idea was to put Arthur Blank’s new team into Arthur Blank’s new palace and curtain off the upper deck. Talk about underestimating the market. Atlanta United has packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium (capacity: 71,000 give or take), just as it packed its temporary digs at Georgia Tech. Atlanta United leads the league in attendance – by 215,673 over second-place Seattle.
Atlanta United is also the best team in the MLS, not to mention the highest-scoring. This franchise – which began playing 17 months ago, we remind you – has gotten so big and so fast that Wednesday’s All-Star Game, which featured five United players, might have served as an audition for European football, the feeling among pundits being that Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron are too big for the MLS.
That’s a line MLS zealots will hate, but the best players in the world inevitably play across the pond. The best young American player is Christian Pulisic; he plays for Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga. The big-name Europeans who grace the MLS tend to be bigger in name than game. We reference the past-his-prime Wayne Rooney, the career leading scorer for Manchester United who now works for D.C. United, the MLS’ worst team. (One of the reasons Atlanta United got so good so fast is by eschewing the catch-a-falling-star tack.)
Still, it’s fun when a Euro giant comes calling, and this year’s All-Star Game matched an MLS delegation against Juventus, which has rendered Serie A its personal playpen. The Old Lady, as Juve is known, has won the Italian title seven years running and is among the world’s half-dozen most famous clubs. This, however, was a World Cup summer, meaning the Juve that arrived wasn’t the Juve anybody knows.
Off doing R&R after the games in Russia were Mario Mandzukic of Croatia, the first man to score for both sides in a World Cup final; Blaise Matuidi of champion France; Paolo Dybala of Argentina; Juan Cuadrado of Colombia and … oh, the world’s best player.
After leading Real Madrid to four UEFA Champions League titles in five years, Cristiano Ronaldo took his talents to Turin. Ronaldo’s ego may polarize his worldwide audience, but he can light up any arena. This All-Star Game would have been far more intriguing had the great CR7 graced us with his abs. C’est la vie, huh?
The run-up to the game also featured much discussion about the non-appearance of Zlatan Ibrahimovich, who rivals Ronaldo in self-esteem and who just landed with the L.A. Galaxy. Ibrahimovich declined his invitation, even though skipping the game means, per MLS rules, he can’t play in the Galaxy’s next match. I might -- might, I said -- have even paid to see Zlatan.
But enough about no-shows. The game, before a huge crowd on a rainy night, wasn’t bad. It was 1-1 when regulation ended, Martinez having scored the equalizer on a header. (He’s good with feet and noggin. Ronaldo is like that, too.) Juve won 5-4 on penalties.
Five years ago, who in Atlanta – besides Blank, maybe – would have envisioned a sold-out MLS All-Star Game in this massive stadium? Who would have imagined that the Southern city that lives for college football would have embraced the game where footballers can’t use their hands? Who knew there was a market of the young and hip just waiting to go wild over soccer?
We Atlantans have had our share – OK, way more than our share – of sporting disappointments. Atlanta United and the MLS are our happiest surprise. Wednesday night was just another reminder. We’re a soccer town now.