– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
HARRISON, NJ — Exactly one month after the most ignominious event in Atlanta professional sports history had just been completed, the newest sports franchise in the city — one that may very well signal the end of a legendary championship drought in North American sports — was officially born. In less than two years, Atlanta United FC has gone from the unknown to the top of the Eastern Conference.
On Thursday night, Atlanta completed its two-leg victory over the New York Red Bulls, the team that earned more points in a single season than any in MLS history, losing 1-0 on the night but making its 3-0 victory at home last Sunday stand to win the Eastern Conference Championship on aggregate. In front of over 72,000 fans at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Saturday night, the Five Stripes will host the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup Final with a chance to bring the city just its second-ever professional sports championship, possibly joining the 1995 Atlanta Braves’ World Series title.
“We’ve had the chance to work and form a team together with these players in Atlanta, and I think we’ve done a good job over these past two years,” Atlanta United FC head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said, through a translator. “Obviously I think you saw this year, you know, the growth of the team and we exceeded what we accomplished last season.”
In a country that grows more passionate and knowledgable about soccer with each passing day, the city of Atlanta has embraced its footballing heroes with a fervor that is almost unrivaled in the history of Major League Soccer, packing the seats at Bobby Dodd Stadium and, eventually, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium since the team’s first regular-season game in March 2017. If anything, Atlanta United’s debut on Mar. 5, 2017 was one way to drown the sorrows of what transpired a month earlier in Houston, when the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI and lost their chance to win their first-ever Super Bowl against the New England Patriots on Feb. 5, 2017.
During that time, Martino, the former manager of FC Barcelona and soon-to-be new manager of the Mexican national team, was just days away from leading Atlanta United, owned by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, in its first-ever competitive match and just a few days removed from still trying to figure out which players would comprise his roster for Year One — his first year in a new continent.
“I had the nerves from not understanding absolutely anything in English,” said Martino about the day he was announced as the team’s manager. “I still don’t understand much more, but I’ve progressed in some fashion, and then I remember working out of Arthur’s office before the training ground was finished and just every day, writing different names on the white board, and over the course of those weeks and months as we were forming the team, just writing names, erasing different names and just trying to sign the players that we needed for the squad.”
Some of those names scribbled on the white board — Josef Martinez, Miguel Almirón, Brad Guzan, Michael Parkhurst, et al. — quickly jelled into one of the top teams in the league, just missing out on the Eastern Conference Championship series last season due to losing a penalty shootout to Columbus Crew SC. This season saw the team sit atop the MLS standings for the majority of the season, and its series against the Red Bulls encapsulated what has made this team so tough to play against; Atlanta United was merciless in front of the Red Bulls’ goal in a 3-0 win in the first leg, then was resolute defensively tonight, only allowing New York to score in the 94th minute, when the tie was already all but officially decided.
“We approached each game great. We understood we needed to win the fight first and foremost against the Red Bulls. At least match it,” said Atlanta United captain and defender Michael Parkhurst. “We had to win second balls. At home, we knew we would attack a little bit more, and we took our opportunities when they came and we scored goals.
“You know that [the Red Bulls] are going to push and we’re going to have to defend, we’re going to have to weather some storms and we did that tonight. Everyone, from top to bottom, did their work defensively. Really proud of the group.”
Though Atlanta United had a near-insurmountable lead going into tonight, that did not mean that the city’s run of rotten luck with sports teams did not enter the minds of some of the players who had been reminded that a big lead in a championship contest by an Atlanta pro team is still a sensitive topic with fans in the Peach State.
“We’re aware of it,” Parkhurst said. “We are all on social media and you see fans and everything. You hear a lot about the “28-3.” I think a lot of fans were nervous going into this game, even up 3-0. We’re proud that we get to bring a championship game to them and, hopefully, we can reverse that.”
What did not get reversed tonight was the New York Red Bulls’ continued championship drought, as they remain one of three original Major League Soccer franchises not to win an MLS Cup and the only original to not win either an MLS Cup or a U.S. Open Cup. For the third time in the last six years, the Red Bulls followed up winning the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy given to the team that earns the most points in MLS in the regular season, by falling short of their end goal, the MLS Cup.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of words to say,” said New York Red Bulls coach Chris Armas about what he said to the team in the locker room after the game. “I’m not sure who would have that much to say, but the message was how proud I was of the team. All the years of playing, you lose most of the time. Just the way it is, right? Even the greatest of all time, you play for 20 years, maybe you win five, but that’s what it is sometimes, and most of the time.”
Atlanta United FC will take the field next Saturday knowing that it will be the final game of the Martino tenure, saying goodbye to the man chiefly responsible for bringing them to the cusp of championship glory. Before he leaves, Martino also wants to make sure he is responsible for the city of Atlanta finally celebrating the pinnacle of pro sports excellence once again, 23 years after it last was able to do so.
“Hopefully we can change that,” Martino said. “That’s the only thing I want to say is hopefully we can change it and that history doesn’t go on like that for too much longer.”
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Thursday evening’s game, with all photos taken by A Lot of Sports Talk senior photographer Robert Cole. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are currently 18 pictures in total.