Investing in Greatness: Atlanta United Wins the 2018 MLS Cup

Atlanta United Wins the MLS Cup 2-0 Over the Portland Timbers, Tata Martino Leaves MLS on Top, and a Perspective on the Future of American Soccer.

Sarah Kallassy - DC United/mlsfemale
Official MLSFemale Contributor

By Sarah Kallassy // @SarahKallassy

On Saturday Atlanta’s skies were grey and a chilly rain persistently pelted the city causing anyone in the streets to look for cover. It was not a beautiful day for a soccer match, but for Atlanta United and Portland Timbers supporters, the weather couldn’t dampen their enthusiasm.

Sarah Kallassy - MLS Cup/mlsfemale
Image: Sarah Kallassy

The Timbers Army began their MLS Cup day by planting trees at the Morningside Nature Preserve before their afternoon tailgate. Atlanta United supporters’ groups, such as Resurgence, gathered in the Gulch, pushing their way under an overpass to avoid the rain while they waited to enter Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

73,019 fans. A record-breaking number, attended the 2018 MLS Cup, rocking the multi-use Mercedes-Benz Stadium with soccer fervor.

Sarah Kallassy - MLS Cup/mlsfemale
Image: Sarah Kallassy

Before the match even began, the excitement inside the stadium was palpable and very, very, loud. It was definitely Atlanta United’s house, the crowd awash with black, red, and gold, broken only by the small contingent of the Timbers Army clad in forest green.

Tifo flags bearing Atlanta’s logo and statements such as, ‘bless your heart,’ waved amidst the ‘fireflies’ that lit the stands and conjured the image of a summer night in the heart of Georgia.

As the match began, the Portland Timbers hoped to recreate the magic of their 2015 MLS Cup victory over the Columbus Crew, while Atlanta United’s young team looked for a perfect end to their electrifying second season in MLS. The home team did not disappoint.

Early on in the match, it was clear that playing at home gave Atlanta a clear edge over the Timbers. Feeding off the energy coursing through their stadium, Atlanta continually denied Portland possession and chances on goal, keeping the pressure on during the first half.

Josef Martinez, the Venezuelan Striker who was named the 2018 MLS MVP, scored his 35th goal of the season in the 38th minute, putting Atlanta United ahead 1-0 right before halftime. Predictably, the fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium went wild. Martinez’s performance during the match would lead him to be named MLS Cup MVP by the end of the night.

Portland made several attempts on goal throughout the game; however, Atlanta United goalie Brad Guzan kept the sheet clean. In the 42nd minute, a particularly dangerous shot by Timber’s striker Jeremy Ebobisse looked like it would see the back of Atlanta United’s net and tie the match before halftime. Atlanta’s fans seemed to hold their collective breath as the ball soared toward Guzan. Not to be bested, Guzan made the difficult save, and the Timbers Army, cloistered on the 300 level of the stadium would have to continue to hope that Portland would make it on the board.

The Portland Timbers emerged from the locker room for the second half with a renewed sense of urgency. They began to place more pressure on Atlanta, but it would be for naught. In the 53rd minute, Franco Escobar made a second goal for Atlanta United, giving the team a comfortable lead, 2-0 over Portland.

Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri, Alvas Powell, and Dairon Asprilla all tried to fire shots at Atlanta’s Guzan in the second half but were unable to send the ball into the net. Diego Chara of the Timbers and Chris McCann of Atlanta United were both issued yellow cards toward the end of the second half, but neither Atlanta nor Portland scored again.

Sarah Kallassy - MLS Cup/mlsfemale
Image: Sarah Kallassy

As the five minutes of stoppage time that referee Alan Kelly had added to the second half came to an end, the sense of anticipation and excitement in the stadium grew. When the clock hit 95 minutes, Atlanta, the city that hadn’t claimed a sports championship in over 20 years, had won the MLS Cup.

In the post-game press conference, Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese was predictably solemn, he said that both teams had put up, “a good fight.” He expressed his frustration with the officiating of the game and stressed that “for this final, for a final so important… I expected more. And I think, sometimes the little things are very important.” Savarese stressed that he did not wish to detract from the great performance of Atlanta United with his statement.

Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, Atlanta United head coach, was of course jubilant. Doused in champagne after the traditional toast in the locker room, he stated that, “the club never modified their plan,” that was established in 2016 when he came on board as head coach. Martino said that “the most satisfying thing was to be able to fulfill all the plans the club presented to me at the beginning. I think we’ve got the best training facilities in the league, we’ve got the best team in the league… they give the coaching staff absolutely everything they need to be successful, and that’s what makes it the most satisfying.”

Sarah Kallassy - MLS Cup/mlsfemale
Image: Sarah Kallassy

While some may say that the stars aligned this season for Atlanta’s win, it seems rather that they positioned their own stars, aligning them through careful investment in the team, the facilities, and the staff. Both the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United played terrific soccer in the MLS Cup and their supporters should be proud, but Atlanta United proved a point on Saturday night about the future of American soccer; we will get out of it what we put in.

Featured image of Resurgence SG: Grant Russell

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @SarahKallassy

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