Behind the scenes: The story of Atlanta United’s first win

Editor’s note: With the Atlanta United season on pause, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is taking a look back at some of the biggest moments in club history. Over the next several weeks, we will bring you a Behind The Scenes series in which our in-depth reporting lets you in on information never before known. Today: Atlanta United’s first win. 

It was a weather forecast that in Georgia would have caused municipal chaos mixed with apocalyptic undertones in a grocery store-emptying frenzy.

In Minnesota, it was just another day of snow mixed with ice. 

In other words, “Game on, Atlanta United and Minnesota United.”

It was the second game for each in the 2017 season and the first meeting between the two expansion teams — at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium.

Other stories in the series

» Atlanta United’s first kits
» Atlanta United’s first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Atlanta United’s core was built around young South Americans: Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Yamil Asad, Hector Villalba and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Minnesota’s was built around more mature Europeans: Switzerland’s Jerome Thiesson, Norway’s Vadim Demidov, Scotland’s Sam Nicholson and Denmark’s Bashkim Kidrii.

Neither team won their first game, though Atlanta United looked much better in its 2-1 loss against the  Red Bulls than did Minnesota United in its 5-1 loss at Portland.

But weather, along with a weird orange soccer ball used because of a concern about visibility, can be a great equalizer.

 

Here, as told by those who were there, is the story behind the game. The voices include Atlanta United president Darren Eales; vice president Carlos Bocanegra; players Alec Kann, Julian Gressel, Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez; and ESPN’s Taylor Twellman. Some quotes have been edited for context, clarity or length. 

Kann: It was tough. The lead-up to the game, we were sitting around in the hotel the day before, and even flying up there and see the storm on the radar.

Usually it misses wherever you are staying or it doesn’t hit as bad as everyone expected. ... It was just as bad if not worse. It was a 1 p.m. kickoff. There’s like, “There’s no way we are playing this game. We can’t even see the ground.”

The more we thought about it, it’s a big game for the league. It’s on ESPN. It would take something pretty crazy to cancel this.

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One of the storylines about the game was whether Atlanta United’s players could handle the weather conditions. 

Eales: Have to admit there was trepidation. Playing a team that had Scandinavians that on paper were more used to that weather. Ours were a bunch of South Americans that hadn’t seen snow.

Bocanegra: Everybody was doubting. What are they going to do in the snow? Will they crumble? Are they going to be a soft team? They have a bunch of pretty players, so to speak.

It was cold. That was one of the coldest days I can remember being a part of in general.

Twellman: I remember that day vividly well. My dad was being honored by Minnesota as they were honoring the Minnesota Kicks from 1970s and early ’80s. 

I also remember that day, meeting with (Atlanta United manager Gerardo) “Tata” Martino before the game, and even the night before. I asked him 3-4 questions about the snow and he said he wasn’t worried what’s so ever.

I said yes, but South Americans don’t often play in it. He said, “We will be totally fine.” I didn’t really believe him because I knew how cold and wet the day was going to do.

What the stadium looked like 2 hours or so before kickoff between Atlanta United and Minnesota United. (Doug Roberson)

In addition to the potential effects of the weather, Atlanta United felt pressure after losing a 1-0 lead to the Red Bulls in the inaugural game.

Eales: I remember, personally. I wasn’t nervous, but we had that first game, which was brilliant for the all the reasons we’ve spoken about. But we didn’t win. Now it was match No. 2 then you start to panic thinking when are we going to get out first win?

I was nervous. When are we going to get out first win, and the conditions were theoretically going against us.

Kann: What people forget about that game was how important it was. We had blown a big opportunity to get off the mark against New York at home.

We are going into play a completely new team. No idea what to expect from them. I have no idea what to expect from a lot of my teammates who had never been in anything like that.

Bocanegra: With the weather, you look at it, wow it’s going to be cold, potentially snow, but until you are out there playing in the weather you never know what it’s going to feel like. … I haven’t spent too much time in Minnesota. When it gets cold, it gets cold.

I don’t know if the guys thought any different. You never want to kind of psych yourself out, whether it’s too hot or too cold. You have to deal with it when you get there. That was one of the coldest days for me that I’ve been part of.

It became apparent during warm-ups that Atlanta United’s players needed to make some adjustments for the weather and the conditions.

Gonzalez Pirez: The game in Minnesota was really, really cold. I remember we went out to warm up, and we wanted to go home from the cold.

Kann: I’m usually pretty strict about what I’m wearing when I’m playing in games. That’s a short-sleeve top, shorts and socks. That’s about it.

That was my plan going into this game.

As soon as we warmed up, “I’m going to have to wear everything that’s available.”

I think I had, there are slots in back of gloves when you can stick in fingers saves, I put handwarmers in there, which helped a little bit.

Worst part was my feet. It was probably worse for the field players.

My feet were freezing. I was wearing two pairs of socks. Tights, leggings, which I’d hardly ever worn, a fitted top and my jersey.

I would have worn a parka with my jersey on top if they had allowed it. It would have looked funny on TV.

Gressel: Jeff (Larentowicz) tried not to wear gloves at the start, and then he asked for gloves. It was the fingers mostly and the toes a bit.

Parkhurst: There’s always little things that guys can do to stay warm. I had always liked to wear the plastic gloves like trainers wear. I would wear those under my regular gloves. I would put a little cream on my toes underneath my socks to keep them warm. The toughest thing was the mouth. Your jaw gets so cold it’s pretty tough to communicate. That’s why I always have my hands in front of my mouth, not warm up my fingers but warm up my jaw so that I can talk.

What the stadium looked like just before kickoff between Atlanta United and Minnesota United. (Doug Roberson)

The temperature at kickoff was 19 degrees, one of the coldest in league history. The orange ball was brought out for just the second time in league history. "This one will be in either the Minnesota sports hall of fame or the soccer hall of fame," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said during the game. "It's kind of nice. I think the character of this community needed a game like this. It will be remembered forever as the first game in this stadium with 35,000 people in the snow."

Martino had never played or coached in the snow. Almiron had never played in the snow. 

Kann: It didn’t feel like a proper professional match. The ball wouldn’t roll. Game plans both teams had were totally out the window.

A lot came down to who scored first and who could handle the conditions for 90 minutes.

Parkhurst: I remember thinking before the game as the snow started to come down harder that would be able to change our tactical approach in the game? All we had worked on was building out of the back, and it became apparent pretty quickly that we were not going to be able to do that and would be able to do that.

How were we going to adjust? Would be able to adjust? It’s something we had talked about in the locker room in small groups, and obviously the team was able to adapt well on the day.

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The conditions didn’t matter.

Josef Martinez scored in the third minute. Almiron scored in the 13th minute.

In the 23rd minute, the game was halted for an unusual reason:

Bocanegra: Blowing snow off the lines.

Parkhurst: I also remember, it it was in the anthem or a breakage, I can’t believe there’s anybody in the crowd watching this right now. There’s no way I’d ever sit outside in not even a soccer game but any athletic event in that weather. That was pretty awesome. I think it was their home opener. It was impressive. I guess Minnesota people are used to that weather. 

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Martinez scored minutes later to give Atlanta United a 3-0 lead.

Kann: Once we scored a couple of goals, thankfully, the game slowed down a little bit.

The first 30 minutes were madness. 

Eales: That game at home, we had a couple of chances on the break to put the game away and we didn’t. For me, it was a relief. We got one, we need another. Can’t rest. Then we get a third goal. 

Even then I was a little bit nervous.

Nearly everything we struck went in.

Bocanegra: We were up by three goals, it felt like we were going to win this game. The snow just kept coming. They kept trying to clear it off. I remember thinking they better not call this game off.

Gressel: I just tried to play. I tried to put some layers on that I usually put on when it’s cold. I changed those as good as you could at halftime to get out of the cold clothes into some warmer one.

Atlanta United wasn’t done. Almiron popped up to hit a wicked left-footed volley from 19 yards in the 52nd minute to give his team a 4-1 lead.

Eales: It became the first of many of our MLS goals of the week as our fans started to vote.

Kann: My mom has a photo of me at home with an inch or two or snow on top of my head.

Parkhurst: It’s definitely the most snow I’ve ever played in. I’ve played in a couple of snow games before, but that one had probably had the most snow ... but the next year in Minnesota was actually the coldest game I’ve ever played in. other guys would say that Columbus game was colder, but I didn’t play in that one. Next year in Minnesota that was … the wind chill was ridiculous.

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Martinez completed his hat trick in the 75th minute when he out-raced three defenders and rounded the goalkeeper to give his team a 5-1 lead. Jacob Peterson finished with the sixth goal. Atlanta United became the first MLS expansion team to score six goals in a game.

Eales: That was a great first statement victory for us.

Tough conditions on the road and score six goals was pretty incredible.

Reality was the first victory was really important for us.

From my perspective, I look back on that as a key milestone. Until you win that first game, you don’t know when that win’s going to come.

You’ve got Inter Miami at the moment, it’s sort of I feel for them because they’ve yet to get that win, and you are in a forced break and you want to tick that box of getting that first win under your belt.

Twellman: Obviously his (Martino’s) team was absolutely ready. The orange ball, just everything you thought an MLS game would be in Minnesota. 

The return to the first division since my father played for the Minnesota Kicks. I was born there. There was a lot going on that day, but what stood out to me was how different Atlanta was than Minnesota. If you watch that game back now, didn’t know who was playing, you would have thought Atlanta was Minnesota and Minnesota was Atlanta with just how sharp, dynamic, whatever buzzword you want to use. Atlanta was on top of it. They surprised a lot of people that day, including myself.

Gonzalez Pirez: It was an amazing experience playing in the snow, and it was our first big win there. We started with doubts a bit because we had lost the first game, but quickly we were able to make and make a difference with the rival.

Bocanegra: It was a really big physical effort, but mentally for them to push through and get that victory that kind of kick-started us for first win in franchise history. But that was also, “Hey, we are here to play. We are here to score goals. It doesn’t matter what kind of conditions there are.” 

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Martinez was subbed off, went to the sidelines and bundled up. Because he had scored his first hat-trick, ESPN wanted to interview him postgame. He needed to unbundle for the cameras. Once the interview was done, a very frigid Martinez returned to the locker room.

Kann: That was a funny locker room after the game. We were overjoyed. But everyone was delirious. Guys were getting massages to try to get the blood moving again.

Bocanegra: Going into the locker room, the guys had blue lips. They were sitting, wrapped in towels trying to get warm.

What the stadium looked like 2 hours or so after the MLS game between Atlanta United and Minnesota United. (Doug Roberson)

Atlanta United had its first three points and established that it had a style of play that could be hard to cope with.

Kann: Had we lost that game, it could have been a different story that whole season.

After that, we rattled off a couple of wins and got ourselves into a good position.

People forget that it was funny and a bit of a joke, but It was very important. It was three much-needed points.

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Team owner Arthur Blank was on hand. He flew Eales, his father, and a few guests on his private jet. Eales said his father, who grew up in a small mining town of Chesterfield in northern England, was pinching himself.

Eales: Arthur was great. I have a framed big picture he gave me with a scarf commemorating that first win. It’s a milestone. It’s in my office in a private place.

Arthur was recognizing, too, that everything starts with that first win. Every journey starts with a step, and it was a really emphatic win and well-deserved.

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And a tradition was started.

Parkhurst: That’s also where we started the away-game winning tradition of taking pictures in the locker room. We didn’t do it after every win, but we wanted to commemorate that win and everybody was freezing in the locker room. We got together and took the photo. It was awesome to remember that first win in club history.

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