In front of 73,019 fans from a recently deceased bad sports town, Atlanta United broke a 23-year-old Atlanta curse by beating the Portland Timbers 2-0 to claim the two-year-old club’s first MLS Cup.
Atlanta looked stifled out of the gate, but still in control. As expected, the Five Stripes kept a large majority of possession but chances were difficult to come by. A cross from Franco Escobar nearly ricocheted off Josef Martinez into the goal but went wide. A cross to Miguel Almiron nearly resulted in the greatest goal in Atlanta United history but Jeff Attinella made the save of his life.
It took until the 39th minute for Atlanta to find a breakthrough.
Michael Parkhurst’s incredible slide tackle deflected directly to Martinez, and the MLS MVP rounded Attinella for his a 35th goal of the year and a goal that sent an already racous Mercedes-Benz Stadium into a frenzy.
Portland nearly responded moments later, but Brad Guzan made the save of his Atlanta United career to deny Jeremy Ebobisse a headed equalizer.
The half ended with Atlanta owning as many goals as Portland had shots on target.
Portland came out of the locker room pushing higher up the pitch and found a pair of solid chances. Just as they looked to be gaining control of the game Larrys Mabbiala clobbered Josef near the touchline, just on the edge of the Atlanta final third.
Miguel Almiron took the free kick. Josef Martinez deflected it. Franco Escobar finished it.
It never once felt like Portland could ever, would ever get back into the game. In a city noted for majestic failures on big stages, the final thirty minutes felt uncomfortably comfortable.
Not only did the win mark the end of a decades long drought, it marked the culmination of perhaps the most successful expansion plan in sports history.
Attendance records shattered. A city captured. A championship in just two years.
“This club had a plan from the very beginning,” Tata Martino said through a translator. “From the first time we spoke in September of 2016 in Rosario. The important thing is this club never modified anything from those plans they had told me. It’s what makes this club successful. This club had a plan and the directors followed that plan to a tee.”
It certainly wasn’t a perfect plan. There were flaws. Missteps. But a stunningly successful one all the same, and one that leaves everyone with a laundry list of people to thank. People like MLS and MLS Cup MVP Josef Martinez, for one. But hey, even MVP’s have a list.
“I think we just have to appreciate the work of everyone this season. The players and the coaching staff. Because even though we had some ups and downs on this team,” Martinez said through a translator. “Everyone on this team contributed something and made sacrifices. This is a win that we want to celebrate because it’s been a long year.”
It’s a year that saw this team crash and burn on opening day in a 4-0 loss to Houston. Saw brutal, heartbreaking results at home to teams like Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City. Saw a blown fourth of July lead to Dallas. Saw a scandalous moment between teammates. Saw the team choke away a grasp on the Supporters’ Shield. Yeah. That’s pretty long.
But the team regrouped. Revamped for the playoffs. And it ends with Atlanta United sending two legendary figures in Miguel Almiron and Martino off with a proper ending.
“If I had to choose the way to leave somewhere…this is the best way.” Martino said.
It also capped a remarkable week for Josef — A player who found himself screaming at a fan in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium tunnel a few months earlier, and now has people somewhat ironically but maybe possibly more unironically pushing for his statue to be erected before the week’s out. The redemption arc is real, and a microcosm of this team’s incredible, beautiful season.
“It’s been a special week for me. Before the game I had a moment with Miguel and I just thanked him for all the help that he’s given me over these two seasons. I told him, please make me a champion today because I’ve never been a champion before. I want to thank him for that,” Martinez said. “And I want to take the time to thank the players, the coaches and the fans, and the city because I know it’s been a long time since they’ve had a championship. We think they deserve it.”
We think so too.