Soccer 360 - - Inside -

It was a cold windy night in late Oc­to­ber at the sta­dium-by-the-lake in Toronto. Just like we had seen so often over the past three years, BMO Field was where the win­ner of an­other ma­jor tro­phy would be de­cided. It was al­most ex­actly how

Ma­jor League Soc­cer had en­vi­sioned the fi­nal day of the reg­u­lar sea­son would play out: Toronto FC host­ing At­lanta United with first place in the Eastern Con­fer­ence and the Sup­port­ers' Shield on the line.

Only the de­fend­ing MLS Cup cham­pi­ons had al­ready been elim­i­nated from play­off con­tention and while At­lanta were play­ing the Reds on the field, they were ac­tu­ally in a head-to-head bat­tle with the New

York Red Bulls. A win for At­lanta would not only give them their first ever piece of sil­ver­ware, but it would also see them break the all-time record for most points in a sea­son which their hosts had set just the year be­fore.

The press box was full of At­lanta United staff wait­ing and des­per­ately watch­ing on as they saw their dream slowly slip away. It took just nine min­utes for Toronto's Lu­cas Jan­son to find the back of the net and by the 21st minute At­lanta were down 2-0. The game ul­ti­mately ended in a 4-1 de­feat. The play­ers quickly rushed back to the dress­ing room to see what had tran­spired be­tween the Red Bulls and Or­lando City SC. They learned New York had pulled off the 1-0 vic­tory and for the third time in Red Bulls' his­tory they were the Sup­port­ers' Shield

“At­lanta United en­sured De­cem­ber 8 was an evening talked about for gen­er­a­tions to come”

cham­pi­ons, break­ing the points record in the process.

Un­like for At­lanta though, the Sup­port­ers' Shield didn't seem like too big of a deal for the Red Bulls. Af­ter all, it was the third time in the past six years that they ended the reg­u­lar sea­son with more points than any other team in MLS. This wasn't the tro­phy their fans nor play­ers re­ally wanted. They were look­ing for the one piece of sil­ver­ware that had al­ways al­luded them – the Philip F. An­schutz Tro­phy pre­sented to the win­ners of MLS Cup. One of the 10 orig­i­nal MLS fran­chises, the Red Bulls had never been able to win the League's most pres­ti­gious prize.

As fate would have it, the two teams who proved they were the best in the League through­out the cam­paign would meet in the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nal for a chance to par­tic­i­pate in and host MLS Cup 2018.

The Red Bulls couldn't have drawn up a bet­ter sce­nario for them­selves to fi­nally get over the hump. New York had played At­lanta United four times dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son since the MLS new­com­ers joined the League last year and never had At­lanta been able to pull off a vic­tory. The Red Bulls and their sup­port­ers could al­most taste the cham­pagne on their lips as they dreamed of an MLS Cup at Red Bull Arena.

But even af­ter the great­est points haul in MLS reg­u­lar sea­son his­tory, it was an all too fa­mil­iar scene for the Red Bulls and their fans. They en­tered the first leg at MERCEDESBENZ Sta­dium in At­lanta full of hope and op­ti­mism, but left with their tail be­tween their legs and a 3-0 deficit to over­come. Whether it was the bril­liance of Coach Ger­ardo Martino, the stel­lar per­for­mance by At­lanta United on the pitch, or the in­cred­i­bly in­tim­i­dat­ing at­mos­phere that 70,016 helped cre­ate on a Sun­day in Ge­or­gia, the Red Bulls com­pletely ca­pit­u­lated un­der the pres­sure. It was the fourth time in New York's his­tory that they had been elim­i­nated from the Eastern Con­fer­ence Fi­nal, only play­ing in MLS Cup once – back in 2008. At­lanta had fi­nally beaten the Red Bulls.

“The first thing we can say is that we’re fi­nally able to beat them,” Martino said with a big smile on his face af­ter the first leg. “I think the team did a good job. It was a team win and we didn’t suf­fer aside from the two sit­u­a­tions on set pieces. I think we were solid de­fen­sively. We’ll have to an­a­lyse it to see if the dif­fer­ence was de­served.”

With a 3-0 lead head­ing into Red Bull

Arena, the sec­ond leg was a mere for­mal­ity. The game ended 0-0 and At­lanta United had earned the right to host the big­gest match in their short fran­chise’s his­tory. Un­like that for­get­table evening in Toronto a cou­ple of months prior, the Five Stripes en­sured that De­cem­ber 8 was go­ing to be one that would be talked about in At­lanta for gen­er­a­tions to come. The fans sure did their part, sell­ing out MERCEDESBENZ Sta­dium and shat­ter­ing an all-time at­ten­dance record. Not only was the 73,

019 in at­ten­dance the most for an MLS

Cup game – beat­ing the pre­vi­ous record of 61, 316 set at Gil­lette Sta­dium in New Eng­land back in 2002 – it was the most in at­ten­dance for any pre­vi­ous MLS game in his­tory.

Josef Martinez scored his fourth goal of the play­offs af­ter 39 min­utes to give the home team the lead – one that would never be re­lin­quished. It was a bril­liant per­for­mance by At­lanta as they con­trolled the game and al­lowed the Port­land Tim­bers very lit­tle. Franco Es­co­bar made it 2-0 in the 54th minute to seal the vic­tory and send the ca­pac­ity crowd at Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium into a frenzy. At­lanta had done in two years what the likes of New Eng­land and New York couldn't do in 23 – win MLS Cup.

“It just took the right com­bi­na­tion of city, of venue, of train­ing ground and of play­ers, most im­por­tantly,” said At­lanta and USMNT

goal­keeper Brad Guzan fol­low­ing the vic­tory. “It all started with the vi­sion from Arthur Blank [At­lanta United owner]. He’s the man be­hind all of this. He thought that it could pre­vail, the sport, a team in this city and it all started with his belief. And Dar­ren, Car­los, Paul, who’s ob­vi­ously left, but those guys, they did their home­work in terms of putting to­gether this team, this ros­ter from Day 1. Now, to cel­e­brate like we are now af­ter year 2, it’s huge.”

To put things in per­spec­tive, Min­nesota United – who also joined the League in 2017 – hasn't come to close to even qual­i­fy­ing for the play­offs, let alone be crowned cham­pi­ons. In fact, they haven't even be­gun play in their new soc­cer-spe­cific sta­dium Al­lianz Field yet. The Five Stripes not only be­came MLS cham­pi­ons over the same pe­riod but de­stroyed all kinds of at­ten­dance records along the way.

At­lanta have done ev­ery­thing right as an or­ga­ni­za­tion and as a city. The club brought in top play­ers, a world-renowned Coach, and built a state-of-the-art train­ing fa­cil­ity that will also help de­velop lo­cal tal­ent.

While the fans sup­ported the team’s vi­sion by walk­ing through the turn­stiles in droves and en­sured that the club not only had the top seven at­tended reg­u­lar-sea­son games in MLS his­tory, but also set a record with 901,033 sup­port­ers show­ing up through­out the reg­u­lar sea­son across 17 games in 2018, a truly re­mark­able feat.

They have raised the bar when it comes to MLS in­vest­ment and be­came League cham­pi­ons as a re­sult. With mul­ti­ple clubs ex­pected to be­gin play in MLS over the next few years, it’s hard for any of them not to be in­spired by what At­lanta United have done. They made it look easy though and as most teams have found out, win­ning in MLS is any­thing but.

MARCO D'ONOFRIO EX­PLAINS AT­LANTA UNITED’S ME­TE­ORIC RISE FROM JOIN­ING MA­JOR LEAGUE SOC­CER IN 2017 TO TOP­PING IT IN 2018. ABOVE:At­lanta United did in two years what some teams couldn't do in more than 20 sea­sons

“At­lanta did in two years what New Eng­land and New York couldn't do in 23 years – win the MLS Cup."

RIGHT:Mex­i­can clubs have dom­i­nated the CONCACAF Cham­pi­ons League but five MLS clubs are aim­ing to change thatTOP RIGHT:Josef Martinez was named the 2018 MLS MVP, af­ter shat­ter­ing the MLS sin­gle sea­son goalscor­ing record with 31 goals.

De­spite win­ning the Sup­port­ers' Shield three times, Bradley Wright-Phillips has yet to win the MLS Cup

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