Atlanta chasing rare title in the MLS Cup
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 sports-related 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 late in the third quarter. The New England Patriots rallied for a 34-28 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 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 Friday.
Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron (10) has a shot defended by Portland Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala (33) on June 24 in Atlanta.