ATLANTA — This is what MLS can be: A stadium filled to the rafters with 73,000 fans, all of them standing—seriously, standing—for 90 minutes. A championship team in the American South, once thought to be a no-go zone for soccer, playing sexy fútbol under a former Barcelona coach. And a team owner reveling in a title as though he had just won the Super Bowl, all while sending a clarion call to his fellow MLS owners: Follow my ambition or you will be left behind.
I have attended 17 of the 23 MLS Cup finals, and the one here on Saturday—a 2-0 win by Atlanta United over the Portland Timbers—felt like no other MLS final before it. It was a chance to witness in person the sports phenomenon unleashed by owner Arthur Blank, coach Tata Martino and a team that blended emerging global star power (Miguel Almirón, Josef Martínez) with veteran American knowhow (Michael Parkhurst, Brad Guzan, Jeff Larentowicz) and a terrific complementary cast.
But the biggest star this week was Atlanta, the soccer city. In just the second year of their existence, the Five Stripes permeate the culture here. On Thursday, I listened to local sports talk radio in the car dissect the finer points of the soccer team. On Friday, I walked past the kind of popup merchandise stores downtown that you only see when people really and truly care about something. (You always knew soccer would make it once we saw scads of knockoff jerseys for sale.) And on Saturday, witnessing the deafening spectacle inside the stadium felt like attending a Pentecostal soccer revival with 73,019 of your closest friends.
“The laying on of hands” already seems to be happening, at least figuratively, in the influence of Atlanta and Blank on long-suffering MLS lands that need those healing powers. Blank revealed this week that he spoke several times with Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam about buying the Columbus Crew, which has saved soccer in that city. And one of the running undercurrents in Atlanta this week was that the Kraft family might finally announce the details of a new soccer stadium in Boston for their New England Revolution in the first half of next year. (The Krafts, for years one of MLS’s least ambitious owners, also recently broke ground on a new training facility for their team.)
Saturday’s crowd was nothing new for Atlanta United; it was the eighth time the team has drawn in excess of 70,000 this season. But to set another league record for attendance in a standalone match, and then to defy the misery of Atlanta sports history by sealing the deal and winning the title game, sets this week apart. Future books that detail the history of MLS will describe the 2018 MLS Cup final as a quantum leap forward in the annals of the league.
“We’re lucky to be a part of this, to be a part of this city, this team, this organization,” said Guzan afterward. “The bar has been lifted in so many different ways for Major League Soccer because of Atlanta United. To be a part of it is really special.”
Next to Guzan, Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst nodded, his four previous MLS title-game losses now a thing of the past with his first W in hand.
“We all know it’s growing, year after year it’s getting bigger and teams are devoting more dollars and better facilities,” said Parkhurst, who first played in MLS in 2005. “It seems like every few months there’s a new training facility going up around the league. It’s great. We’ve got new stadiums coming in. I’m glad Columbus is sorted out and they’re getting a new stadium.
“Teams have continually upped each other and continued to set the bar higher and higher, and that’s fantastic. To have an owner like Arthur with his vision and his willingness to spend and care about the team and put us level with his NFL team, it’s nice.”
They are two monumentally difficult tasks: To build a culture around Atlanta pro soccer from scratch in just two years and to build not just a winning team in the same amount of time but a championship team in a 23-team league. Tata Martino’s two years in Atlanta—before he presumably takes the Mexico job soon—will end up being viewed as a comet streaking across the night sky. You wish he would stay longer, but the results will stay imprinted in the mind’s eye forever.
As Martino said after the game, “The most satisfying thing for me is to be able to fulfill all the plans the club presented to me at the beginning. I think we have the best training facilities in the league, we’ve got the best team in the league, and as a club they gave the coaching staff everything you need to be successful.”
Guzan couldn’t help but marvel that Martino and the Atlanta front office got basically everything right. At least the stuff that mattered the most.
“To be able to assemble a team in a short amount of time and get it right from the start,” said Guzan, shaking his head. “There weren’t many changes from Year 1 to Year 2 that we made. They hit the nail on the head in terms of Miguel, Josef, Tito [Villalba], Parky and Jeff, guys that have MLS experience with a mixture of young guys that are hungry to succeed. We knew from last year we had the quality and ability. It was just a matter of understanding how to do it.”
Make no mistake, Martino’s 2018 Atlanta team should be regarded as among the best five teams in MLS history and perhaps even the best, even though a loss on the last day of the regular season allowed the New York Red Bulls to squeak by and win the Supporters' Shield. Atlanta ended up with the second-highest number of points in league history (post-shootout era), and it blew through the postseason with ease against NYCFC, the Red Bulls and finally, on Saturday, Portland.
This is what MLS can be. And it was a sight to behold.