On Dec. 8, the seventh night of Chanukah, Atlanta United FC gave owner Arthur Blank the best imaginable present: the championship of Major League Soccer, in only the second year of the team’s existence.
A first half goal by Josef Martinez and a second half tally by Franco Escobar, combined with the defensive prowess demonstrated throughout the playoffs, secured Atlanta a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final.
A “rowdy and proud” league record crowd of 73,019 filled the Mercedes-Benz Stadium to its rafters, cheering at such volume that players on the field had difficulty hearing each other. A few thousand Portland fans, mostly grouped in a section of the stadium’s upper deck, were in fine voice until late in the game, when the outcome seemed all but certain.
When the referee blew the final whistle, the “Five Stripes,” as the team is known for the design of its red-and-black primary home uniform, mobbed each other on the field, as the crowd, save for the visitors from the Pacific Northwest, erupted in delight.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber presented Blank with the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy. The 76-year-old owner held it aloft before handing it to captain Michael Parkhurst, who joined his teammates on a riser, thrusting the cup over his head as the squad jumped up and down, prompting another roar from their faithful fans.
Two days later, Atlanta celebrated its rarest of events: a professional sports championship. A bus carrying the team, coaches and management made a slow trek through downtown, preceded by flag-waving and drum-beating members of supporters groups. At some points, cheering fans lined the sidewalks three- and four-deep.
The procession wound its way to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium “back yard,” where – despite the chill and drizzle – fans who had lined the parade route joined several thousand waiting there. The players were introduced on stage one at a time. Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms spoke, followed by Blank, team president Darren Eales, general manager Carlos Bocanegra, manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, goalkeeper Brad Guzan, defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and Parkhurst.
Blank, affectionately referred to as “Uncle Arthur” by the fans, told the celebrants: “I could walk around and thank every single person here, but the greatest tribute belongs to you, our fans. You’re unbelievable. God bless you all. You did an unbelievable job supporting this team throughout the year. … I want to thank you for responding with energy and passion and caring and love for this team and for our great city.”
The end of the rally marked the beginning of the off-season, which itself promises drama.
Martinez collected a unique haul of trophies, including the most valuable player awards from: the league’s all-star game (which was held in Atlanta); the regular season (after smashing the MLS single-season scoring record); and the post-season playoffs.
Martino previously had announced his departure, reportedly to oversee the Mexican men’s national team. A new manager will be expected to continue the team’s attractive style of attacking play.
The soccer grapevine has rumored for weeks that midfielder Miguel Almiron, a fan favorite for his electric style of play and infectious smile, is headed for Europe, but nothing official is expected until the January player “transfer window” opens.
Other players will leave, either because the club has opted not to renew their contracts or because they will join other teams. New players will be added to the roster.
The team will resume training in January, in anticipation of play in the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) regional tournament, a perk of having been so successful in its first two seasons.