ATLANTA (AP) — Finally, Atlanta has another team it can call champions.
Josef Martinez and Franco Escobar scored goals, Brad Guzan came up with a couple of clutch saves and Atlanta United gave the city its first title since 1995 with a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final Saturday night.
Cheered on by the largest crowd in franchise history, United captured the crown in just its second season to set off a huge celebration in a city that has known so much sporting heartbreak. Owner Arthur Blank got to lift the trophy, just under three years after his other team, the NFL’s Falcons, squandered a 25-point lead in an epic Super Bowl collapse.
Atlanta reveled in its first title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series — a gap of 8,442 days, for those counting.
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.”