At­lanta goes for a rare ti­tle in MLS Cup fi­nal

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - SPORTS - By Paul New­berry

AT­LANTA >> A city that has known plenty of sport­ing heart­break is one win from a cham­pi­onship.

It sure has been a while. At­lanta hasn’t won a ma­jor pro­fes­sional ti­tle since the Braves cap­tured the 1995 World Se­ries. A 2-year-old soc­cer team has a chance to end the drought when At­lanta United hosts the Port­land Tim­bers in the MLS Cup fi­nal Satur­day night be­fore an ex­pected crowd of 73,000 at Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium.

“I was tex­ting the mayor the other evening,” United owner Arthur Blank said. “She’s al­ready planned on a pa­rade, so she’s ahead of me. We haven’t a pa­rade in At­lanta, a sport­sre­lated pa­rade, since 1995. God will­ing and play will­ing, we’ll be in po­si­tion to do that again next week.”

The Braves are rec­og­nized by many as At­lanta’s only true sports cham­pi­ons — and even their ac­com­plish­ment came with a gi­ant caveat. The team won an un­prece­dented 14 straight divi­sion ti­tles, but be­came known mostly for its post­sea­son fail­ures, los­ing four times in the World Se­ries and ev­ery other year but one in the ear­lier play­off rounds.

Blank was on hand for per­haps the city’s big­gest dis­ap­point­ment. He also owns the NFL Fal­cons, who reached the Su­per Bowl for just the sec­ond time in fran­chise his­tory in

2016, only to squan­der a 25-point lead. The Patriots ral­lied for a 3428 vic­tory in over­time.

“I’m as ex­cited about this as I was about the Su­per Bowl,” Blank in­sisted, be­fore quickly adding, “I don’t want to end up with the same feel­ing we had sev­eral years ago.”

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 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 ti­tle 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-yearold 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 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.” lot

JOHN BAZEMORE — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Josef Martinez, left, stands with At­lanta United owner Arthur Blank af­ter Martinez was pre­sented with the Lan­don Dono­van MLS MVP award Wed­nes­day in At­lanta.

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