At­lanta chas­ing rare ti­tle in the MLS Cup

The Arizona Republic - - Sports - Paul New­berry AP

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.

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