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