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Atlanta United wins MLS Cup 2-0 over Portland Timbers

ATLANTA — The Kings of the South are now the kings of Major League Soccer.

Take all of Atlanta’s sports tropes and blunders, put them in a bag and throw it out. None of that matters anymore. Every bad loss erased. Every sports sin forgiven. Every ghost vanquished.

Atlanta United FC, in its second season of existence, won the MLS Cup.

In front of an announced record crowd of 73,019 Saturday, the Five Stripes defeated the visiting Portland Timbers 2-0 inside the spaceship-like Mercedes-Benz Stadium that rocked with a force when Atlanta’s rowdy and proud supporters jumped around and chanted at the top of their lungs.

“I dreamed of what it felt like to be in the locker room with the champagne,” Atlanta captain and centerback Michael Parkhurst said. “I’ve heard it through the walls a couple times. This is amazing.”

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)

Leading the way for the Five Stripes on Saturday were its usual suspects: Parkhurst, Golden Boot winner and MLS MVP Josef Martinez, Europe-bound playmaker Miguel Almiron and the steady goalkeeper, Brad Guzan, who flung his arms out and ran around imitating an airplane when the final buzzer sounded.

The Atlanta sports curse — 28-3, 14 straight division titles and one World Series, 2nd and 26, the Hawks and Dream never winning anything, two hockey teams leaving, the Olympic curse, whatever else — is broken.

“Given the history of Atlanta sports, I refused to let myself get excited until the referee blew (the whistle) and there was no chance of (Portland) scoring two goals.” Atlanta President Darren Eales said.

Seeking his first MLS Cup win in his fifth try, the 34-year-old Parkhurst made a play in the 39th minute that wound up creating some offense for the Five Stripes. After Leandro Gonzalez Pirez lost possession for Atlanta on the left wing, Portland used a pair of passes to put the ball into the midfield.

But Parkhurst pressed up, and his tackle on Portland’s Jeremy Ebobisse forced the ball to roll into the Timbers’ penalty box, where Josef Martinez got a touch on the ball. Martinez, operating as smooth as lyrics from Andre 3000, ran away from Liam Ridgewell and danced around Jeff Attinella before tapping the ball into an open net for his 35th goal of the season.

“I just wanted to get pressure on (Ebobisse), not allow him to turn. I’ve seen in video that a lot of the times he goes to that side. He’s got the left foot,” Parkhurst said. “From there, I just slid. Josef did all the work from there. He does what he does best and that’s putting it in the back of the net.”

Martinez was subbed off in the 76th minute for Hector “Tito” Villalba, another speedy South American playmaker. Martinez finished the match with a goal, an assist, 10 successful passes and a clearance. He was named the game’s MVP.

“Josef is the guy that finishes things off,” Atlanta defender Jeff Larentowicz said. “You saw it tonight, he gets more or less a half chance, and dribbles around the keeper to finish it off.”

Ebobisse responded for Portland with a headed shot on-goal just moments later, but it was saved by Guzan, giving the Five Stripes the advantage at halftime.

Portland began the game by sitting back and absorbing Atlanta’s attack and pressure. It was successful for the most part and defended well aside from the loss of possession that led to Martinez’s goal. But the Timbers had just 43 percent of possession in the first half and tallied just one shot. Meanwhile, the Five Stripes got off four shots, took two corner kicks and completed eight open play crosses in the first half.

The Timbers inability to score in the first half was somewhat due to them bunkering down, but when they did get out on the counter, they had trouble completing passes in the final third against Atlanta’s back line. Guzan didn’t touch the ball until 17 minutes into the match, but had more work in the second half, when the Timbers put three shots on-target.

Guzan made his third save of the match in the 86th minute, diving to his right and hauling the ball in like a wide receiver. The 34-year-old American finished with four saves and claimed two crosses. Just twice over five playoff matches did shots get past him.

He is the ninth goalkeeper to record a clean sheet in the MLS Cup. With him in goal, Atlanta United did not allow a single goal from open play in the playoffs.

“More than the shutout, I’m just happy to play my part,” Guzan said. “The guys in front of me have been tremendous, especially during this playoff run. There’s not a lot of times we’ve been cut open or conceded great chances.”

Atlanta added to its total on the scoreboard in the 54th minute following a free kick from Almiron. He lofted the ball into the box and it was met by Martinez, whose header put the ball at the far post, leaving an unmarked Franco Escobar to deliver a sliding shot into the goal. The score was the third of the season for the Argentine defender and his second in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

It’s the first championship a major Atlanta pro sports team has won since 1995, when the Braves won the World Series. It’s the first soccer title the city has seen since 1968, when the Atlanta Chiefs won the NASL championship.

For Atlanta United, winning the MLS Cup caps off Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s career as the club’s first coach. With the help of general manager Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra, the Argentine tactician built the roster from scratch.

Atlanta was ambitious from the beginning, going after young South American talents like Villalba, Almiron, Martinez and Gonzalez Pirez, instead of seeking out aging European stars like the rest of the league had. With Martino, Eales and Bocanegra at the helm, Atlanta drew up a blueprint for how an expansion team can compete right away and capture the attention of a fanbase.

And now, with an MLS Cup, they’ve shown that plan not only puts an exciting product on the field, but that it wins.

“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.

Eales and Bocanegra will stay put, while Martino will take another turn in his well-traveled coaching career. He turned down a team option earlier this year and is rumored to be the next manager for the Mexican national team.

This may have been the final game for Almiron too, who quickly established himself as one of the league’s top players. Twice, he was an All-Star and named to the league’s Best XI. The Paraguayan midfielder was subbed off in the 90th minute for Ezequiel Barco and finished Saturday’s match with 30 successful passes, two tackles and an assist. Almiron has many times expressed a desire to play in Europe and has recently been linked to rumors with many clubs in the English Premier League.

“(Almiron) has the ability to turn the game on its head just by himself,” said Atlanta defender Chris McCann, who has played in England. “He showed tonight what he’s all about. If he goes (to Europe) and replicates what he’s done here, he’ll have no problem reaching the top level in England, or anywhere else for that matter.”

The pregame tifo that draped in front of Atlanta’s supporters section said it all. It showed a red and black train with “MLS 3.0” plastered in front of it. Atlanta United are the conductors of that train. Its spending, its play and its fans have pushed the league into a new era.

And nothing is going to stop that train from rolling now.

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