Atlanta United fans celebrate MLS championship

When Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst told the thousands of supporters at Monday’s championship parade downtown that the MLS Cup “is ours and this cup is yours,” he wasn’t just throwing the fans a bone.

This credit was well-earned, as the improbable story behind this second-year franchise’s rise to glory is as much about Atlanta as the team itself.

“To all the haters who say Atlanta wasn’t a sports city … The South has got something to say,” Atlanta United President Darren Eales told the cheering throng that braved freezing temperatures and a persistent drizzle to celebrate the city’s first professional sports championship in 23 years.

And the fans have been saying it, loudly, from the moment the Five Stripes first took the field, filling stadiums with one record-breaking crowd after another while demonstrating the kind of fervor usually reserved for European football (minus the hooligans).

It’s the kind of devotion unseen in these parts since the early 1990s, when the "Worst to First" Braves captivated a fan base weaned on decades of failure. But cynicism would soon rear its ugly head again, thanks to countless playoff disappointments that reached a crescendo in Super Bowl LI when United owner Arthur Blank’s other team, the Falcons, blew a 28-3 lead to the New England Patriots.

One month after the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, Atlanta United took the field for the first time at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus. The atmosphere was raucous, the fans, knowledgeable and the team was as competitive as any expansion team in any sport had ever been.

“The moment we got here, I knew it was time to be an Atlanta United fan,” said 31-year-old Stevan Simic, among the thousands of fans attending the parade celebrating the city’s first professional sports championship since the 1995 Braves. “Growing up in Atlanta, it means so much to have your team do something like this.”

Atlanta United fans are showered in confetti at the team championship celebration Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

So even though his hometown held the patent on sports disappointment, Simic said he fully expected them to claim the MLS Cup.

“With the team they put together and how they were playing, I was not surprised,” he said.

But to those who follow such things, Atlanta’s transformation from the City too Busy to Care about sports (other than college football) into Soccer City, USA qualifies as a truly stunning development. A well-established narrative was flipped, seemingly overnight.

ATLANTA UNITED: A fan participation guide

“Football is indeed the day’s feature attraction, but not the brand traditionally linked to the deep south,” according to a recent article in The Guardian. “Instead, red-clad fans numbering in the thousands have descended on the ground-level asphalt patch beneath a tangle of overpasses in support of Atlanta United, the nascent Major League Soccer (MLS) club that’s become the most improbable phenomenon in American sports today – and a vibrant symbol of a new Atlanta.”

Gregory Shenton, of Smyrna, was at that inaugural game and every one since, including Saturday’s franchise-defining victory over Portland at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“This is a special moment in Atlanta,” said Shenton, 44. “It restores hope that the Falcons or Braves could come through and bring home a championship.”

Shenton, who went to the championship game with his son Logan, 8, credits Blank with creating a positive sports culture.

“He brings back the tradition of Ted Turner, when winning was first,” he said.

It took Turner’s Braves 19 years to win a championship. And Blank, who purchased the Falcons almost 17 years to the day, is still looking for that first Super Bowl trophy.

“We knew Atlanta was a great city. We knew Atlanta was a sports city,” Blank said Monday. “Now we know Atlanta is a championship city.”

Time will tell if Atlanta United has truly reversed the city’s pro sports curse. And will the fervor survive when the team hits an inevitable dry spell?

Atlanta United outgoing manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino is applauded after hammering the Golden Spike during the MLS championship rally Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Fans interviewed Monday said they expect the phenomenon will continue unabated. Much of that has to do with the game itself, once viewed as a niche sport that couldn’t compete with American football, baseball and the NBA. But unlike those sports, soccer is played from a young age by both boys and girls, and the stands at Mercedes-Benz Stadium reflect a uncommon gender neutrality. Millennials and Generation Z fans have bought into the next big thing big time, and so have immigrants from soccer-crazed countries who, in the United, have found something they can call their own.

“We’ve all been let down before. It’s good to finally have someone to be excited about,” said Amy White, 45, of Marietta. She took the morning off from work and checked her 12-year-old daughter Kate out of school to attend the parade. “It also feels like we’re at the start of something. Soccer is just starting to get big in the U.S. and we’ve got a great team here in Atlanta.”

-Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Ben Brasch, Amanda C. Coyne and Becca Godwin contributed to this story