On a cold, windy, dreary night in Little Rock, I stood shivering on the sidelines watching Auburn’s football team fall to Arkansas in a forgettable game. My original assignment had me set up in the cozy, warm press box where almost every television hanging above our heads was tuned in to game six of the 1995 World Series.
The photographer, scheduled to shoot for us, didn’t make the trip from Auburn to Arkansas, forcing me to grab my camera and spend the evening on the turf.
Sometime in the late third or early fourth quarter, I turned and saw fans in the stands wearing Arkansas and Auburn colors performing the Tomahawk Chop. I knew then my beloved Braves had won the World Series.
I cringed a bit, realizing I hadn’t gotten to see the game live or in person, but a large piece of me thought it didn’t matter. Many more World Series titles were on the way. What I didn’t realize was Atlanta’s next pro sports championship would come in a league that had yet to start playing at that time.
This isn’t an article bashing the Braves, Hawks, Thrashers, Falcons or others. I’ve already documented my long love/hate relationship with Atlanta’s sports teams. Instead this is a celebration, which had been brewing for 23 long years.
Even on the night that Atlanta United, the city’s two-year-old Major League Soccer expansion team, captured the MLS Cup, announcers and pundits talked about jinxes, curses and how Atlanta just isn’t a pro sports city.
Before we talk about anything else, we start with the fans. During the first and second Atlanta United seasons, throngs of fans packed first Bobby Dodd Stadium and then Mercedes Benz stadium, once it opened, turning game day into a carnival–like atmosphere.
As other cities and MLS franchises scoffed at the upstart Atlanta fan base, the fans paid no attention and kept showing up. This season, United fans filled the Benz so often that the club had the seven highest attended regular-season games, as well as the three most attended post-season games.
Those fans showed again for the MLS Cup with a championship game record 73,000-plus screaming, yelling, clapping, dancing and cheering as United topped Portland 2-0.
I’ve attended Braves, Falcons and Hawks games, and Atlanta United contests. The atmosphere at the United game, including the crowd and noise from game start to game end reminded me more of a big college football game than a pro game.
And the product United put on the field can only be described with a three-letter word: FUN.
Watching Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron slice and dice opposing backlines with aplomb energized the stadium all year. And in the finals when Michael Parkhurst dislodged a ball from a Portland defender before finding Martinez, who deftly maneuvered around Portland’s keeper before slotting the ball into the net for the opening goal late in the first half, the stadium erupted. Crazily enough, this was Pankhurst’s fifth MLS final, but the first time his team was able to raise the cup.
United’s attack before the goal had been steady and unrelenting, but it wasn’t just the attack, as the defense shut down Portland’s top attacker, Diego Valeri, during the evening. United keeper Brad Guzan, who has served as net minder for the U.S. National Team on many occasions, executed a couple of brilliant diving saves to keep the Timbers off the board.
Martinez, who finished with the most goals in a single season in MLS history, got his head onto a cross into the box and Franco Escobar pounced on the ball sending it into the goal for the 2-0 lead early in the second half.
And from minute 54 on, it was all about clock watching. United had a few more solid scoring chances, Guzan notched a few more saves and Portland made substitutions, runs and attacks trying in vain to cut the lead. All the while, the largest crowd to watch an MLS Cup cheered, danced and prayed for the clock to continue to run.
Remember this is Atlanta, the same city that saw its NFL team squander a huge lead and lose the Super Bowl. The same city which saw its baseball team win with regularity in the regular season for more than a decade only to fall short in the World Series or playoffs time and again. And don’t get me started on the Hawks. But I said no dwelling on the past.
Somewhere around the 80th minute I allowed myself to breath easier and as those final seconds ticked away, I smiled from ear to ear. For once, I didn’t have to turn off the television or watch another team celebrate.
Of course some of the game brought bittersweet moments as well. When manager Gerardo Martino subbed out Martinez late in the second half, the sound cascaded from the upper deck and washed across the field.
Martinez returned the love, clapping with both hands over his head. The same happened when Almiron exited near the end as well. Both players helped bring the cup to Atlanta and their wonderful, attacking, frenzied style of play helped define the team.
More than likely, both players will not be back next season for United, as overseas clubs are pining for their talents. And Martino, who also helped define this team and develop a strategy and a system, which resulted in tons of fun games wins and the MLS Cup, is also leaving. He will take over the helm for Mexico’s men’s team.
But those thoughts can wait. As the final whistle sounded, the Benz erupted in a cacophony of sound and jubilation. The United players danced and celebrated with the cup as red confetti exploded again and again.
Team owner Arthur Blank, who had to watch his Falcons fall flat a few years ago in the Super Bowl, was all smiles as the team he talked about bringing to Atlanta a decade ago had managed to fulfill the dream of bringing another championship to town.
I watched as my Facebook and Twitter feed filled with celebratory posts and photos. Numerous friends and acquaintances were celebrating. Many were soccer fans long before United came to town. However, I also counted a lot who weren’t. Some of them were even the type of sports fan who derided soccer. For most, all it took was one trip to the Benz to have their eyes opened.
And of course the critics will come out, reminding us how hard it will be for United to stay on top. But it doesn’t matter. Atlanta won the MLS Cup, and we get to celebrate it. But here’s something else to think about. United’s fan base—albeit brand new—has shown a level of support few others in the MLS have. You can bet potential players and managers have taken notice and would love to be a part of this franchise.
Go ahead and tell us Atlanta isn’t a professional sports city or that soccer isn’t a mainstream sport. You’d be wrong, but you can say it if you want.
For a city that has seen more than a few flounders on the championship level, it couldn’t be more fitting that the team with United in its name showed Atlanta and its fans were just that. And we have the big, shiny cup to prove it.
*The views expressed in this column are those of the writer, and do not represent the opinions of V3 Magazine.