The Kings of the South are the Kings of MLS.
Behind goals from Josef Martinez and Franco Escobar, Atlanta United defeated Portland 2-0 to win the MLS Cup in front of record announced attendance of more than 73,000 on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
No one from owner Arthur Blank to the players were shy in the past few weeks about their expressing their ambition to win the MLS Cup for manager Gerardo Martino, who is leaving the club, for themselves and the supporters. It was the 17s, as the team nicknamed its supporters, who embraced the Kings of the South nickname and who turned their home into a cauldron of noise throughout the season by setting numerous attendance records.
“These are always special moments, to culminate this amazing process we’ve had in Atlanta,” Martino said.
The city pulsed with anticipation throughout the week about the opportunity to break a title drought in the major pro sports leagues dating to the Braves winning the 1995 World Series.
The crowd was whipped into a frenzy early by Blank, who hammered the Golden Spike in the ceremony that Atlanta United performs just before the start of every home game.
By kick off, the stadium was packed. Those in the Supporters’ Section swayed back and forth while singing “We Ready” by Archie Eversole, who was on hand to lead the vocals.
The game started slowly.
As expected, Portland focused on defense, trying to absorb Atlanta United’s pressure in order to counterattack.
Atlanta United thought it had a case for a penalty kick in the 16th minute after Martinez appeared to be tripped by Larrys Mabiala, but referee Alan Kelly consulted with the Video Assistant Referee and denied the pleas.
Miguel Almiron put a charge into the crowd in the 29th minute when he attempted a flying side volley off a cross from Greg Garza. His shot, which wasn’t hit as well as he would have liked, was palmed away by Jeff Attinella.
Atlanta United broke through in the 39th minute on a goal by Martinez. The play started with a sliding tackle by Michael Parkhurst of Jeremy Ebobisse that forced the ball back toward Portland’s goal. Parkhurst said that Brad Guzan told him that when Ebobisse moves toward the ball, he likes to go to his right to set play inside of his left foot. Parkhurst said he saw him starting to do that, so he slid to try to bock the pass.
“Josef did the rest from there and did what he always does and it ended up in the back of the net,” Parkhurst said.
Timbers centerback Liam Ridgewell reached out his right leg to try to stop the ball from rolling past but couldn’t. As he has done often the past two seasons, Martinez pounced. He dribbled to his right and waited on Atinella to commit before taking one more dribble to his right and scoring with his right foot. It was Martinez’s 35th goal this season, extending his MLS record for scoring.
As they have done throughout the playoffs, the Timbers fought back and almost tied the score in the 42nd minute, but Brad Guzan dove to his right to stop Ebobisse’s point-blank header in the 42nd minute.
Portland kept applying pressure, but it was Atlanta United which broke through for a crucial second goal.
A free kick whipped in by Almiron skimmed off the top of Martinez’s head and to the foot of Escobar, whose sliding one-timer gave the Five Stripes a 2-0 lead in the 54th minute. It was Escobar’s second goal in the playoffs and third this season. Almiron and Martinez were given assists. Martinez was named the game’s MVP.
“You started to sense that they tossed in the towel a little bit,” Guzan said. “The first goal is always going to be massive one way for another. To get the first one was big. To get the second one, the second one really broke their backs.”
The title was secured by a dominating series of performances in the playoffs, culminating with Atlanta United’s third shutout in five postseason games. The team finished the season by going 11-2-4 at home during the regular season and 3-0-0 in the postseason with just two goals allowed.
“We never suffered, we were never uncomfortable,” Martino said.
Atlanta United’s players sensed that the Timbers weren’t going to be able to recreate the road magic that carried them in the knockout round game at Dallas, and the series against Seattle and at Sporting KC.
“I thought we were the better team,” Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel said. “We were in the game more than Portland was.”
Now, Atlanta United is a champion.
“If I had to choose a way to leave somewhere, this is the best way,” Martino said.