ATLANTA — The days leading to Atlanta United’s MLS Cup final victory over the Portland Timbers were filled with anticipation.
Atlanta United had already pulverized league attendance records. How big would the MLS Cup final be?
The crowd in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the number of credentialed media in town, the stadium, the broadcast and everything else surrounding the event emphatically answered that question. By the time Atlanta United lifted the MLS Cup after beating the Portland Timbers 2-0, a clear line had been drawn between MLS then and MLS now.
An announced crowd of 73,019 shattered the previous MLS Cup record of 61,316, which was set in 2002 when the New England Revolution played the L.A. Galaxy in Foxborough, Mass. A team in its second year in the league won a title, becoming just the second expansion side to win a championship within two years of taking the pitch.
Ask club president Darren Eales, he’ll say the club is wise beyond its years and it all started with the vision at the top.
“When we were thinking about the brand, the way I was trying to picture it was we wanted to feel like we’d been around for 10 years, 15 years upon our launch,” Eales told Pro Soccer USA. “The way we’ve managed to get the players, the way that the club plays, the stripes, it feels like we’ve been around a lot longer than two years. I think that’s a testament to all of the hard work that everybody at the club’s done, but also to the vision and leadership of Arthur Blank.”
Mercedes-Benz Stadium – a massive, state-of-the-art venue shared with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons – stayed packed until the full-time whistle, which couldn’t be heard over the roar of the championship-starved Atlanta faithful celebrating the city’s first major win since 1995.
A shared venue, once a sore spot for MLS teams without their own soccer-specific stadiums, is arguably one of the Five Stripes’ biggest strengths.
“Now that I’ve lived it and done it, where you get in cabs and Ubers and they’re yelling at you because of your opinion about their own team — you know you’ve made it,” ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman said of attending matches in Atlanta. “It’s unreal how quickly Atlanta has turned the corner and come into the league.”
MLS Cup before
FOX Sports host Rob Stone, the pregame host for Saturday’s match, has worked “double-digit” MLS Cups and has watched the game – and the league – grow.
“Back in the day, if I asked for a ticket for friends or family, they would say, ‘How about 18?’” Stone said with a laugh. “I’d go, ‘I’ll go make some new friends. I’ll hand them out.’ I’ll be a pioneer and say, ‘You are now going to become a soccer fan. Here’s free access.’ This week, if I had to ask for tickets, they would nod their heads and say, ‘Let me see what I can do, but no more than two.’
“Things have changed. This is an in-demand ticket. Some of it stems with the very logical, sane decision to get away from the ‘pre-ordered neutral site’ and go to a venue of the highest-seeded team.”
In 2012, the league made the switch from neutral-site finals to the highest-seeded team hosting the final.
“Frankly, I think it’s a setup that more sporting outlets out there should look at,” Stone said. “We covered the Pac-12 football championship last week for FOX. If you’re going to tell me it wouldn’t be better served to have been played in Seattle at the University of Washington’s stadium or in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah’s, rather than where they had it in the Bay Area, you’re wrong.
“It would have been a better atmosphere, it would have popped better. It would have gotten more coverage. It would have been more meaningful. It would have been more everything. That’s what MLS Cup now is. More everything.”
Players felt that, too.
“My neighbors were putting flags all around my house and pushing notes under my door, so I had a lot of pressure to deal with,” said Josef Martinez, who had a goal and an assist and was the MVP of the match. “It’s a great feeling to win this here and now.”
Even the number of media members present for Saturday’s match eclipsed anything previously seen at an MLS Cup.
The first MLS Cup, a 3-2 victory for D.C. United over the Galaxy in 1996 at since-demolished Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts, had about 150 credentialed members of the media, according to league spokesman Dan Courtemanche, who was there for that match.
Saturday’s MLS Cup had more than 800 members of the media, including league partners. For a more recent comparison, Courtemanche said the last two MLS Cups, which were hosted by Toronto FC had about 600.
The atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Saturday’s match was electric right from pregame warmups.
The Five Stripes’ supporters section raised a tifo that referenced “MLS 3.0,” the new era the league is entering with clubs like Atlanta United that are willing to spend on players and high-caliber training facilities.
Timbers fans traveled in force, with more than 1,000 gathered for a tailgate in the rain and temperatures in the 40s.
Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan wasn’t shocked by the turnout or the atmosphere.
“We hit that attendance numerous times during the regular season,” Guzan said. The Five Stripes actually hit announced crowds of 70,000 or more eight times during the regular season.
“It’s something that we’ve become accustomed to,” Guzan said. “You never take it for granted. You appreciate all the support that we get on a weekly basis. But to see it here, the noise level, the atmosphere, the craziness – we knew it was going to be special.
“[Michael Parkhurst] said to me before the game, as we were walking across the field in our suits, he goes, ‘There’s probably a couple thousand here and it’s already loud and it’s already buzzing.’ We knew when you added an extra 70,000, it was only going to get more intense.”
The two biggest events on the 2018 league calendar were hosted at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The last time one team got to host both the All-Star Game and the MLS Cup final was in 2013, when Sporting Kansas City hosted them.
Attendance at this year’s All-Star Game set a league record, too. But that wasn’t a true home game. It featured Atlanta United players, sure, but it wasn’t the title match United supporters craved all season.
“I have to say, the sun, moon and the stars aligned here in Atlanta,” league commissioner Don Garber told Pro Soccer USA.
Garber lauded the success of other recent expansion sides. LAFC took the field this season and made the playoffs. Minnesota United, which joined the league with the Five Stripes, will move into its new stadium next season.
Still, Atlanta United stands apart.
“We seem to be having similar success with all of our new teams,” Garber said. “But, clearly, when you’re averaging over 55,000 fans a game and have eight crowd of over 70,000, it does certainly raise the bar, for sure.”
MLS Cup after
Guzan and Parkhurst said they’ll worry about next season when next season comes around.
Still, Atlanta United has some real questions to answer.
One person who definitely won’t be around to answer those questions is coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who will leave the team for another opportunity.
“The most satisfying thing for me is to be able to fulfill all the plans that the club presented to me at the beginning,” Martino said through a translator after the MLS Cup. “I think we have got the best training facilities in the league. We have got the best team in the league, so as a club, they gave the coaching staff absolutely everything you need to be successful, and that is what makes it the most satisfying.”
The Five Stripes could lose their best playmaker if reports of Miguel Almirón’s impending transfer to the Premier League come to fruition.
But Stone looks at what Atlanta United has done with its training facility in Marietta, Ga., and its spending to bring in strong players and sees the future of MLS – especially if United can sell its young, talented players.
“MLS is still an infant when you compare it to the NBA and Major League Baseball and the NFL” Stone said. “There’s been a lot of ‘What’s next?’ A lot of what’s next is what Atlanta has brought to us.”
Atlanta United doesn’t have much time to dwell on its championship season, though. The league has roster transaction dates coming up and the Five Stripes will be playing in the Concacaf Champions League starting Feb. 20.
Guzan said he and his teammates are determined to savor being on top of the league, but the USMNT goalkeeper promised the Five Stripes will be ready.
“We’re lucky,” Guzan said. “We’re lucky man. To be a part of this, to be a part of this city, to be a part of this team, this organization. The bar’s been lifted in so many different ways for Major League Soccer because of Atlanta United. To be a part of it is pretty special.”
Dec 8, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Michael Parkhurst (3) celebrates with teammates after defeating the Portland Timbers in the 2018 MLS Cup championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports