Editor’s note: With the Atlanta United season on pause, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has taken a look back at some of the biggest moments in club history with a Behind The Scenes series in which our in-depth reporting brought you information never before known. Today’s final installment: Atlanta United wins the MLS Cup.
Atlanta United’s first chance at major trophy was the MLS Cup against Portland in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 8, 2018.
Behind goals from Josef Martinez, thanks to a brilliant play by Michael Parkhurst, and a goal from Franco Escobar, the Five Stripes won 2-0 in front of an announced attendance of more than 70,000.
It was the coronation of a franchise considered the league’s model, but that needed a bona fide.
Atlanta United was the prohibitive favorite. It was playing at home. There would be more than 70,000 in the stands. It had the league MVP in Martinez as well as a player in Miguel Almiron who was soon to be sold for a league record to a Premier League club. It had one of the world’s better managers, Gerardo Martino.
Other stories in the series
» Atlanta United’s first kits
» Atlanta United’s first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium
» Atlanta United’s first win in the snow in Minnesota
» Atlanta United’s trips to Charleston
» Atlanta United’s first roster
» Atlanta United’s first game
This is Atlanta, where championships don’t come easily. From the Chiefs winning the NASL in 1968, only the Braves have been able to bring the city a championship in professional sports.
The failures of the Falcons, Hawks and yes, even the Braves for not capitalizing more on myriad chances when roster money flowed like Coca-Cola, had fueled the “Atlanta is a bad sports town” narrative.
And club president Darren Eales badly wanted to dispel the myth, one he had been tackling as part of his first talking points when he accepted the position in September 2014.
So, the stage was set on a very cold, very wet December night because Atlanta and bad weather and big events seem to go together like scattered, smothered and covered.
Here, in the words of Eales, vice presidents Carlos Bocanegra and Catie Griggs, players Mikey Ambrose, Julian Gressel, Alec Kann, Jeff Larentowicz, Parkhurst and 92.9 FM play-by-play man Mike Conti is the story of the MLS Cup.
While Atlanta United was playing at home, the event actually was hosted by MLS. The good news for both parties is they collaborated on hosting the All-Star game earlier in the year.
Griggs: I was running on fumes. That week, over a seven-day period leading up to the Cup and then to the parade, which was incredible, I managed to get a grand total of 14 hours of sleep.
For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m an 8-hour a night girl.
So, it’s a bit of blur for me.
There were some things that we said if we do this again, we would do these X, Y, Z things differently. The cool thing is we got to bring those to life for Cup.
It really was a collaborative effort. It was their show, but they wanted to make sure we could incorporate a lot of our traditions, things along the lines of Golden Spike.
We had gotten rid of the capo stand for All-Stars. Coming back for Cup, they recognized from a fan energy standpoint how critical that for us, so it was back.
Darren and I were only barely on speaking terms at that point because he had to be the superstitious, don’t-take-anything-for-granted type, where I had to be running parallel paths of things that could happen, so I just stopped telling him about a lot of things.
Unlike the Super Bowl and things like that, you don’t have a year to prepare for. You start thinking about it before it’s there, but practically speaking it gets really hot and heavy.
We had about two weeks. That’s my 14 hours of sleep.
Everyone from the league, to our club, to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, to city of Atlanta, it was an all-hands-on-deck. Pretty cool experience to see everyone come together and the excitement that come out of it that culminated, for me, on the parade at the Home Depot Backyard.
It was pulled together very quickly.
Another advantage to being at home played into the strengths of Martino.
Parkhurst: His ability to adapt to the league.
He wanted us to stay in hotels the night before games, which we were obviously unaccustomed to as Americans playing in MLS.
We didn’t like it.
Fast forward to MLS Cup: any MLS Cup we had ever been in we had stayed in a hotel the night before. But we treated it like any other game and didn’t stay in a hotel the night before MLS Cup.
Day of the game, I’m getting into an Uber with Darlington (Nagbe) and Greg (Garza), and we are going to the game like it’s any other game, which is just kind of crazy to think about it. Here we are going to MLS Cup, the biggest game in MLS history to that point because we knew the crowd was going to be crazy.
Martino’s decision seemed to have worked.
Kann: I remember a sense of calm from all the guys and the coaches. I had never been on a stage like that. Farthest I’d made it was wild-card round with Kansas City and Atlanta the year before. I wasn’t sure how teams would react, whether they tightened up.
We could have done that. We were playing at home. We were a heavy favorite.
That whole week building up to the game, even on game day itself … it was treated in a lot of ways like just another game.
We knew if we played as well as we knew that we can there was no way that Portland would beat us.
Gressel: I was quite nervous the whole week leading up to the game, but for some reason when I entered the stadium it kind of went away. I definitely sensed a different kind of energy once we met the fans. It is hard to describe, but it just felt like that this fan base and this city wanted us to win so bad. I certainly felt that and carried that with me into the game.
Larentowicz: First time I’d been in a host situation for MLS Cup. It felt like we were in a good spot as a team.
When Portland beat KC, I think KC was such a tough team, when Portland knocked them off, KC had presented trouble to us at home that year.
We felt like we could beat Portland.
Still history doesn’t care about sleep.
Eales: It was strange, the whole buildup I heard from you and everyone else was the curse of Atlanta sports. That was everyone’s fear. We had it with the Georgia Bulldogs earlier.
I was getting nervous because everyone else was getting nervous. I’m normally pretty on edge in games. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t too bad during the game.
Bocanegra: You know Atlanta sports history. Sort of “what’s-going-to-happen-tonight sort-of feeling.” I try not to get involved in that. I’m not from Atlanta. You don’t want to believe that.
You can’t get away from it. So that was in the back of my mind.
That was one of the most nervous times I’ve ever been before a game. It was almost ours to lose.
Larentowicz: Once game started we were a little bit nervous at beginning, but we really hit our stride in the second part of the first half, and that was it.
Conti: We did an expanded pregame show on 92.9 The Game which started two hours before kickoff. So I got to the broadcast booth very early, and the stadium was empty. At one point during a commercial break, I left to grab a soda, and I could not believe how full the press box was. I had never seen it that full. It was during that soda break that I caught a really special moment (which actually turned out to be very funny). The Atlanta United communications staff wanted to honor (Braves usher) Walter Banks, so they presented him with that night's Atlanta United's team sheet signed by Tata Martino. Walter was incredibly gracious (as always), but I think he also was a little bit confused. I think he was under the impression that they were telling him to throw it in the trash. So he took the team sheet, gave it to the closest person standing to him and asked him to discard it. That person was Falcons CEO Rich McKay.
With the crowd roaring throughout, Atlanta United broke through in the 39th minute when Parkhurst tackled Jeremy Ebobisse about 40 yards from goal. From film study, Parkhurst knew that Ebobisse likely would turn to his right after receiving the ball with his back to the goal. The tackle knocked the ball 15 yards down the field to Martinez, who at first appeared to be offside. Martinez rounded goalkeeper Jeff Attinella to score the opening goal in the 39th minute.
Parkhurst: Best crowd I’ve ever played in front of. The fans were there early, and they were loud the entire game. It was such an awesome atmosphere. I’ll never forget it.
To have the opportunity to play in front of them to win a championship, whew, that’s amazing.
Bocanegra: We go up. We are at home. Fans are rocking. We are winning. We can’t lose this one now. We have to finish this off and buck the trend. This would be an epic letdown for everyone involved.
You don’t get to get back to these very often. I know that from my career. It’s special when you get to a final. That was, when Parky, Jeff, guys like Brad (Guzan), guys that had been through these situations in MLS or in their careers, giving information to these guys.
Some of the guys were a little bit excited. Some guys like Josef, Miguel, pumped to go out and compete week in and week out.
It was a good mix.
Conti: I thought Josef Martinez's goal may have been offside. From our vantage point, we cannot see the Assistant Referee on the near touch line. So when he scored, I motioned for Jason to remain silent for a moment while I tried to confirm if the flag stayed down. It turns out we stayed silent for a solid minute. But, listening to the tape, the crowd noise was so deafening that I don't think we would have been heard anyway. Our engineer that night, Eric Davis, did a great job of mixing the crowd noise with our commentary.
Remember this is Atlanta, where championships aren’t a given. With Atlanta United leading 1-0, Guzan made an incredible save of a point-blank header by Ebobisse in the 43rd.
Larentowicz: Brad makes save at the end of the first half. A split-second of “Oh my God”, then we clear it and they hadn’t scored and we went into halftime 1-0 and at that point we just needed to shut it down.
Kann: When I look back at that game, that save won us the game. If they score and go into halftime 1-1, the upset is on. They can come out in bunker in the second half and play for extra time. We could potentially get a little bit tight knowing we aren’t protecting a lead any more.
That’s the play that in my mind won the game.
In terms of positioning and timing, it was a comfortable height, but the ball got to him quick. I think if you take even a slightly different position closer to the near post he’s having a tough time getting there. But I think he settled in really comfortable into his set, was able to push off and get the ball into a good area.
He made the save look a lot easier than it probably was.
Bocanegra: That was a big save. He shuffled across, and he came across with a big bear paw and saved it. In games like that you need your big players to step up on the attacking end, and you need your goalie to make a save or two and he did.
Still leading 1-0, Franco Escobar cemented his reputation as a big player in big games with a goal in the 54th minute. The play started with a free kick from Almiron. Martinez headed it to the back post where Escobar one-timed the ball in the 54th minute.
Eales: When that goal went in, I didn’t think we were going to lose it. I had a feeling of calm that I haven’t had before or since at Atlanta United games. When that went in, I felt like we’ve got this.
Bocanegra: I was definitely not, oh we got this, not until the 92nd minute when he blew the whistle. That felt good.
Conti: After Escobar's goal, it was very clear Atlanta United was going to win, but I was still shocked that Tata Martino subbed off both Almiron and Josef Martinez. I remember thinking, “Tata has (guts) for doing that.”
The final whistle blew, and Atlanta United had its first trophy.
Gressel: The game itself is quite a blur. Obviously the big moments - especially the goals - stand out. Once I heard the final whistle, my first reaction was to run over to Parky and just hug him. I was so happy for him that he finally won MLS Cup.
The celebration with the guys and then my family on the field and in the locker room were so special. Those are moments that will stay with me forever.
Ambrose: When we won and all were on the field together jumping and celebrating, it really is a surreal moment that you can’t really compare to anything else. Then the whole locker-room experience was amazing.
Parkhurst: Jeff and I had lost three in New England together. I knew that he had won one without me, but to win one together was cool.
Bocanegra: That final whistle was a sign of relief.
Once we got past New York City, then we felt we had a real chance to do this this year.
We were confident. Miguel was healthy. This is going to be our year.
It was a big relief, a load of our shoulders.
We did it. We accomplished it. What an amazing feeling.
Larentowicz: It was just so much fun in front of our fans. In general, the ability to do it at home, that crescendo at the end of the game. We were up 2-0, and everyone’s waiting. That was so much fun. A lot of friends there. A lot of family there.
It was one of the better events that MLS has ever been able to put on.
That game had everything.
And then came the beginnings of the parties.
Ambrose: A pretty funny thing that happened was when we were shooting champagne at each other. Uncle Arthur (Blank, the team owner) came in and I poured it on his head and it got in his eyes on accident, but I gave him my goggles then right after, Miles shot his champagne top at my face and it hit me right in the eye. Thankfully I moved a little bit so it didn’t do anything. But that whole experience was amazing and the entire week of celebrations.
Parkhurst: The champagne celebration after the game in the locker room, I’ll never forget. I was 0-for-4 leading up to that point, so I really cherish that. Having that in there and drinking out of it.
It was incredible. We are lucky that we had the dome because that night was so gross outside. We were all outside the stadium afterward getting soaked waiting on Ubers to go the after-parties.
And then reflection.
Bocanegra: My brother was in town. Some of my friends came out. I remember asking them to send me their videos during the game from the different vantage points in the stadium. I remember online seeing people on Twitter, all their different vantage points of the game and the celebrations.
It was cool to see how many people took in that experience because I was not taking that in during the game.
I was extremely nervous and concentrating on the game.
After, it was reflection time for me, and you get emotional. It’s so much hard work from the entire organization that went into this.
To give it back to the city, give it back to the fans, let everyone enjoy that and appreciate a pretty special moment.
I would compare it to when I was with the U.S. team and we beat Algeria on that last-second goal to advance to the knockout rounds in the World Cup.
You see the videos of all the watch parties around the world. You see how happy sport makes people. You see how emotional people get, especially in the country who are pulling for you and you compare it here in Atlanta and we had 72,000 people in there going crazy. The city was behind us. Everyone was riding us. You knew it, you are able to bring pleasure to people, the happiness and the joy. You give that halo back for a little bit of time to the whole city. To be able to provide that, to be a small piece of bringing that joy to the city is a really cool feeling.
Conti: The morning after the game, I interviewed Arthur Blank during our Falcons pregame show. He told me that winning the MLS Cup was right at the very top of all of his personal and professional achievements, which I thought was an astounding comment for someone who founded a Fortune 100 company and owned an NFL franchise.
Griggs: It was exhausting in the moment, but retrospectively truly one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments where it was a cool opportunity to see everyone come together and pull something that set the MLS attendance record.
It was a special experience, just a slightly exhausting one.
Larentowicz: When you look at the team and the lineup and how different we were then, it was only a year and a half ago, it feels like that’s past. It’s done. That’s really what I felt. We are so different now.
That’s very in the rearview (mirror).
It was such a fun team. Such a stressful year.
Once Tata (Martino) told everyone he was leaving, there was that added tension to the end of the season.
You see it in our face. We were at home, we knew we were the best team. We just had to get it done.
Eales: That moment was amazing.
For me, it was the aftermath. The rain. Seventy thousand-plus crazy fans. We won the game.
We ended up at the nightclub in Midtown. People were queuing up just to get a photo of the trophy. We had a little VIP booth on the top level.
I called it my Atlanta-the-TV-series moment. I would go with the cup to the balcony and everybody down on the dance floor would cheer. I would do it like every five minutes.
I remember walking back to my house with the trophy under my arm, a little worse for wear in the early hours of the morning, which is where I ended up having the photo of the trophy in the bed with me.
It was just that feeling, we worked so hard. Everybody. The fans. Arthur. Down to the associates. The players. The coaching staff.
We had some amazing experiences, but to actually cap it off with a trophy for the city, for our amazing supporters, it was like a feeling of immense pride that we managed to achieve that. All of us felt that.
It was really special that as a young club we could deliver so quickly, and it was no more than Atlanta the city deserved because it had this bad rap as a poor sports town, which we all know is a load of rubbish.
A huge crowd like that, bigger than at the Super Bowl a year later. We won a trophy in only our second year. Our fans sent shock waves around the world. That imagery of that game, of that crowd, around the world was something that really resonated.
It wasn’t me that broke that trophy. Put it on record.
Because the season ended in December, Atlanta United didn’t really get a lot of time to savor its accomplishment. Contract options needed to be decided.
Bocanegra: It’s tough with the rule. We had to bring in guys the next morning to let them know they were being released or that we weren’t going to pick up their contract. Pretty crummy considering we were coming of a big win and the night before saying we have a parade Monday morning and would love for you to be a part of it. It was a difficult time frame.
Having the postgame party, guys are pumped. The guys weren’t aware. The timing of that wasn’t great. Uncomfortable conversations anyway. Pulled the rug out from some of the guys. It wasn’t ideal timing. That was a rough day. Going into the parade they dealt with it like pros. That week was all business. Couple of days before Christmas and then 304 days we were able to enjoy it and then back at it because it was a quick turnaround that year.
Eales: On reflection, it was wonderful.
If I could give advice to everyone going through it, we should have savored it a little bit more. It’s part of the reality. We were starting late, we had to make those decisions. We had the Greg Garza trade happening literally while the parade is going on.
It’s a mentality, and it’s obviously, I think, we feel as a club that it comes from Arthur. There is no finish line.
We as a club aren’t going to rest on our laurels. We want to be competing every year. Against that you’ve got to take time to enjoy it. I think that, in retrospect, it’s a little bit of a shame that — it’s the nature of Major League Soccer — the way it is now where there’s a longer offseason. If you win the MLS Cup, it will be nice when, fingers-crossed, we win it again, it will be nice to take a couple of weeks for everybody to bask in the glow. We went straight into it, and of course, we had the coaching change as well going on in the background.
You wouldn’t swap it for the world, but if we are fortunate enough to get there again, we will try to savor it more this time.
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