Atlanta United celebrates in their locker room after beating the Portland Timbers 2-0 to win the MLS Cup on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)
ATLANTA — When referee Alan Kelly blew the final whistle after 90 minutes and five added minutes of stoppage time Saturday, a hoard of people in red and black rushed in from the sideline to celebrate with the 11 Atlanta United FC players on the field who had just won the MLS Cup.
In the locker room post-game, it was hard to tell who was a starter and who was a reserve, who was young and who was old, who had been with the team from its inception and who had just joined months ago. None of that mattered.
Winning the MLS Cup was equally special for every Atlanta United staffer, coach and player, even if they never saw the pitch during the championship match.
“It’s incredible. Winning a trophy is special in every player’s career. I think we’re just so, so happy, because of all that work we put in to get to this point,” said Kevin Kratz, a veteran midfielder for the Five Stripes. “That atmosphere. As a player, you go out and you look at the stands and you say, ‘Alright, this is why I chose soccer as a profession.’”
The 31-year-old Kratz is a well-traveled German who spent much of his career playing for clubs in his native country until he came to MLS in 2016. He’s spent the past two seasons with Atlanta United, and has often been a go-to substitute for manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino when the Five Stripes need a bit of stability in the midfield.
Kratz has also shown he’s a top-class free kick taker, netting two goals off those shots this season. He has appeared in 47 games with Atlanta United over the past two seasons, starting in seven of those. He was a starter for the majority of his career in Germany, and he didn’t see the pitch Saturday, but said nothing he experienced in Germany compared to wearing beer goggles in the locker room Saturday night, holding the MLS Cup while champagne flew through the air.
“I haven’t been part of championships in Europe. I got promoted once. This is definitely another level,” Kratz said. “You can feel it. I told a couple of guys who were not on the roster today, you should come out there and get on the field before the game, because there is a different vibe, a different flair to that game. I think every player deserves that trophy right now, because all the work throughout the weeks.”
Miles Robinson grabbed two bottles of Heineken and began searching for a bottle opener. He found one sitting in a puddle of beer on the locker room floor, wiped it off and cracked the brews open.
As Hector “Tito” Villalba and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez danced on the table in the middle of the locker room, as Brad Guzan chugged beer out of the MLS Cup, and as Romario Williams dumped beer on his own head, Robinson was in the middle of it all, living out a scene he’d seen many times on TV.
“I’ve been waiting for a moment like this my whole life,” Robinson said. “I mean, I’m always looking at SportsCenter, ESPN and celebrations like this, and seeing what it feels like to actually win it all. I’ll definitely remember this for my whole life.”
Robinson was Atlanta’s first-ever pick in the MLS SuperDraft, taken No. 2 overall in 2017. He never saw the pitch in an MLS match as a rookie, but grew as sophomore, getting some playing time with the first team — 10 appearances and three starts in the regular season — and worked on his development and technique with Atlanta’s USL club, ATL UTD 2.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, Robinson was a fixture in Martino’s 18-man game-day roster. And in Atlanta’s second leg game against New York City FC during the Eastern Conference semifinals, he was called on to start in place of an injured Jeff Larentowicz. Robinson played well, the Five Stripes won 3-1 and Atlanta rolled on.
“It feels great. I’m happy I got to contribute,” Robinson said. “It’s all these guys. It’s the veterans of the team, the great players. Our starting lineup, you can’t compare it to anyone else.”
For Robinson, Saturday night highlighted a season during which he really grew. If Michael Parkhurst or Larentowicz were to move on from the club in the offseason, Robinson would be in line to be a regular starter in 2019.
The only thing Robinson could compare Saturday night to was a day in 2015, when he and his fellow Syracuse Orange won the ACC title.
But winning the MLS Cup is a little different. There’s no post-game beer chugging in the ACC. At least not in the locker room.
“That’s a NCAA violation,” Robinson said with a laugh.
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
Alec Kann played in just one MLS contest for Atlanta United this season, a 2-1 win on the road against Orlando City. As goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s backup, he doesn’t see the pitch much, but he always has to be ready in case Guzan is unable to play.
He enjoyed the post-game celebration Saturday as much as anyone, but as a native son of metro Atlanta, it meant a bit more to him. The 28-year-old from Decatur has lived through many tough losses for the MLB Braves, NFL Falcons and NBA Hawks. He came to Atlanta United in 2016, when the club plucked him from Sporting Kansas City with its final pick in the expansion draft.
Despite not having the on-field stats to show for it, he assisted Atlanta United in winning the MLS Cup and helped deliver a championship to his hometown for the first time in more than two decades.
“It’s always been special for me to play in the city that I grew up in. To bring a championship here, it’s really hard to put into words,” Kann said. “It means a ton for this city. It means a lot for soccer in this country. I thank Arthur Blank so much for all he’s done for this team.”
Atlanta United FC staff, players and fans celebrate the club's 2018 MLS Cup Championship with a parade and pep rally at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 10, 2018. (Mitchell Northam / ProSoccerUSA)
Kann played much more during his first season with Atlanta United, manning the goal for the first 18 games of the club’s history while Guzan finished out the season with Middlesbrough, an English Premier League club. Although Kann didn’t play much for the Five Stripes in 2018, he was still in training each day, working hard to make himself and his teammates better.
It was those long days in training — the cold days in February and the sweltering days in July — that made the Five Stripes better. From the start of the season, Kann said, they were focused on winning it all.
“At the beginning of this season, going in, we knew that we were challenging for the championship from day one,” Kann said. “So, for us to have not won anything this year would’ve been a massive injustice to this team.
“Thankfully, we were able to get it done.”