Atlanta goes for a rare sports title in MLS Cup final
ATLANTA (AP) — A city that has known plenty of sporting heartbreak is one win from a championship.
It sure has been a while.
Atlanta hasn’t won a major professional title since the Braves captured the 1995 World Series . A 2-year-old soccer team has a chance to end the drought when Atlanta United hosts the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final Saturday night before an expected crowd of 73,000 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I was texting the mayor the other evening,” United owner Arthur Blank said. “She’s already planned on a parade, so she’s ahead of me. We haven’t a parade in Atlanta, a sports-related parade, since 1995. God willing and play willing, we’ll be in position to do that again next week.”
The Braves are recognized by many as Atlanta’s only true sports champions — and even their accomplishment came with a giant caveat. The team won an unprecedented 14 straight division titles, but became known mostly for its postseason failures, losing four times in the World Series and every other year but one in the earlier playoff rounds.
Blank was on hand for perhaps the city’s biggest disappointment. He also owns the NFL Falcons, who reached the Super Bowl for just the second time in franchise history in 2016, only to squander a 25-point lead late in the third quarter. The New England Patriots rallied for a 34-28 victory in overtime.
“I’m as excited about this as I was about the Super Bowl,” Blank insisted, before quickly adding, “I don’t want to end up with the same feeling we had several years ago.”
Since big-league sports arrived in Atlanta more than five decades ago, the only other team that can claim a major title is, in an interesting twist, a soccer club.
The Atlanta Chiefs won the championship in the North American Soccer League’s very first season in 1968 , but that event is remembered by only the most devoted fans. The Chiefs lasted a total of 10 seasons over two incarnations, but both times went out of business for lack of support. The entire league expired after the 1984 season.
Enter United, which has quickly built a fan base in Major League Soccer that would fit right in with the Premier League or La Liga. Atlanta has broken essentially every MLS attendance record during its short existence, averaging more than 53,000 per game this season. Seattle posted the next-best attendance figure at just under 41,000; no other team in the 23-team league averaged as much as 27,000.
“We’ve set a new bar for performance in Major League Soccer, both on the pitch and off the pitch,” Blank said. “You are what you dream about. You have to be able to visualize it to be able to execute it. We’ve been able to do that to the highest possible level.”
United’s opponent in the title game is a surprise.
After finishing fifth in the Western Conference, the Timbers have had three huge road victories in the playoffs. First, they eliminated Dallas 2-1 in the knockout round. Then, they won on penalty kicks in second leg at Seattle. Finally, after drawing at home in the first leg of the conference final, they rallied for a 3-2 victory at top-seeded Sporting Kansas City .
“We’ve been absolutely lights out on the road,” coach Giovanni Savarese said. “They continue to count this team out. But the good news is the players decide the outcome of the game.”
Timbers Army sold out its allotment of 1,300 tickets in just four minutes, assuring Portland of at least some fan support in Atlanta. Savarese complained about the arrangement, saying it was far below the 5 percent standard that FIFA recommends for road teams.
“I’m not trying to stir the pot,” Savarese said before Friday’s final training session. “You’ll still hear (Portland’s fans). They’ll bring it and bring it hard. I just wish we had more of them. They’ve always traveled well, and will continue to travel well. But we need to look at that rule going forward and, frankly, that’s something we should’ve anticipated as a league.”
Atlanta features the most prolific scorer in MLS history. Josef Martinez shattered the record with 31 goals , earning both the Golden Boot and the MVP award. The 25-year-old Venezuelan has kept up the pace in the playoffs, adding three more goals in United’s victories over New York City and Supporters’ Shield winner New York Red Bulls.
“It’s up to us to keep him quiet,” Portland defender Liam Ridgewell said. “The best way we can defend is by making them defend a lot more than we do.”
United will be playing its final game under coach Tata Martino , who is reportedly headed to Mexico as national team coach. The former Barcelona manager has been a huge reason for Atlanta’s success, installing an attacking style of play and luring a number of quality players from his native South America.
“It was a great leap of faith on his part,” Blank said. “We’re blessed that he was our coach for these first two years.”
United would like nothing than to send Martino out with a championship.
But this city’s quest runs far deeper than that.
“We’re definitely aware of it,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said of Atlanta’s sports history. “We know about it. We hear about it. (Saturday) is not just for us as a team, as a club, as an organization. It’s for the city of Atlanta. It’s for the state of Georgia. We know we’ve got a couple of bigger causes.”