MLS MVP Josef Martinez had a goal and an assist, and Atlanta United put on a show for a record crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the hosts beating the Portland Timbers to win their first MLS Cup.
ATLANTA — Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers 2-0 to win the 2018 MLS Cup final on Saturday before a raucous MLS-record crowd of 73,019 and complete a fantasy season for the second-year team.
MLS MVP–and MLS Cup MVP–Josef Martínez scored the opening goal near the end of the first half and assisted on Franco Escobar’s goal early in the second for the decisive advantage. Martinez was also in position to potentially give Atlanta the lead earlier than his 39th-minute strike, but a VAR review ultimately agreed with a no-call on a would-be penalty.
Regardless, the night belonged to Atlanta from the start and resulted in trophy lift for the host club.
Here are my three thoughts on the game:
• Michael Parkhurst made a play that helped him finally win an MLS Cup
The Atlanta captain and central defender had been synonymous with championship heartbreak by losing four previous league finals with New England and Columbus, but he finally was able to hoist the trophy on Saturday, not least because he had a huge hand in the first goal.
Near the end of a first half in which Portland had frustrated the home side by absorbing its pressure without conceding, Parkhurst—who had been an injury concern earlier in the week—saw Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse take a heavy touch in midfield and decided to pounce. Parkhurst’s tackle shot the ball forward, where an onside Martínez got the ball instead of Portland’s Liam Ridgewell. King Josef then did the rest, rounding goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and finishing with class for his MLS-record 35th goal of the year (including the postseason).
Martínez is so reliable in the box. It was his flicked header to the far post on a set piece that led to Escobar’s goal to make the score 2-0 and give Atlanta a buffer en route to the title.
• Tata Martino and Miguel Almirón can leave MLS on a high note
Almirón (who’s expected to be on his way to England in January) may not have won the league MVP award this season, but anyone who watches a lot of games knows he was the best player in MLS this season. And while Almirón didn’t have a direct hand in Atlanta’s goals on Saturday, he was dangerous throughout the game and attracted Portland’s undivided attention throughout. It was his acrobatic chance that nearly opened the scoring, if not for an equally acrobatic save by Attinella.
For his part, Martino will leave a brilliant, brief legacy in MLS as a coach who took a risk to come to Atlanta, start a team from scratch and make it a champion in just two years. Martino was the main reason several of Atlanta’s best players came to the team, and his gameplan was solid again in the final. Martino knew Portland would play deep and press in the midfield, and his players were well-drilled and patient as they waited for openings that finally came.
Atlanta will have work to do to replace Tata and Almirón, but the philosophy of the club is built on doing just that.
• The atmosphere was incredible
Mercedes-Benz Stadium was burning rocket fuel on Saturday with a crowd of 73,019, the largest ever for an MLS Cup final and for a standalone MLS game. Their noise was deafening, they never sat down and they fed off the energy created by the hardcore supporters behind the goal. It’s unlike anything MLS has ever seen, and it’s a testament to the vision that owner Arthur Blank had when he started the team in the first place.
Technically, it wasn’t the biggest crowd in world soccer this weekend—Manchester United announced a thousand more for its game at Old Trafford—but there were a lot of empty seats at that game in England. The crowd in Atlanta was the de facto No. 1 in the world this weekend, and that was entirely appropriate.