Josef Martinez celebrates with Atlanta fans. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
ATLANTA — Every championship team is a success story.
Then there’s Atlanta United, whose remarkable story over the past two years has been absolutely incredible.
A Major League Soccer expansion team in the 2017 season, United has reached the heights that some teams have strived for — ie. the Red Bulls — but have failed for some two decades.
On Saturday night, United stood tall, winning the MLS Cup behind a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers.
But the victory was only part of the story. There was an MLS Cup-record 73,019 fans, most of which were hooting and hollering for their heroes at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Josef Martinez, the regular season MVP, added MLS Cup Playoff MVP to his growing resume and accomplishment with yet another superlative performance. The Venezuelan international scored the first goal and helped setup the second — by Franco Escobar on a memorable night for Atlanta soccer fans.
Well, 2018 was the 50th anniversary of the city’s other soccer championship.
In 1968, the Atlanta Chiefs captured the very first North American Soccer League crown, winning a two-game series over the San Diego Toros, 3-0.
The MLS Cup is a one-shot deal, so the hosts sewed up up in 90 minutes.
“We won one, so that is good,” said Tata Martino, who coached his final game with Atlanta. “It has been a while, 2013 with Newell’s (Old Boys), won a title with (FC) Barcelona in 2014, but it has been a lot of disappointments, but this one we won. We won one, and these are always special moments, just to culminate this amazing process that we have had in Atlanta.”
The Benz, as this stadium is nicknamed, can be an intimidating place for any visiting team because due to an ocean of red shirts surrounding the green field. The enthusiastic supporters don’t need much to get roused, although Brooklyn native Arthur Blank, the United and Atlanta Falcons owner livened things up during traditional pre-game ceremonies by driving the giant golden spike into an imaginary railroad track.
Slowly, but surely, United took the command of the midfield and found gaps in the Portland defense and managed to stretch out the backline on occasion. In the 39th minute, the hosts hit pay dirt. The Timbers cleared the ball into the midfield. Jeremy Ebobisse, however, made a rather dubious decision by passing the ball with a heavy touch toward his own goal as it eluded defender Liam Ridgewell and onto the foot of Martinez.
Martinez raced down the right side, forced goalkeeper Attinella to commit as the striker slid the ball into an open net while for a 1-0 advantage and his MLS-record 35th goal this season across all competitions.
“I mean, you started to sense that they’ve kind of tossed in the towel a little bit,” Martinez said. “The first goal was huge. Listen, goals change games, and the first goal was always going to be massive one way or the other. So, to get the first one was big. To get the second one, I think really broke their backs I think that really put them behind. Listen, on so many different levels, it’s just massive. It’s huge for us.”
Atlanta needed that goal because four minutes later, Portland’s Sebastian Blanco found himself on United’s doorstep as he powered a close-range header that goalkeeper Brad Guzan knocked away with both hands.
Guzan said winning the title was “huge.”
“I’ve always said you never know when you’re going to have an opportunity to be in a final,” he said. “They don’t come around often. You’ve got to take advantage when you’re part of them, when you’re in the moment. You’ve got to enjoy the lead-up to it, you’ve got to enjoy the game.”
The killer goal came in the 54th minute, which began on Miguel Almiron’s free kick. Martinez headed the ball to Escobar, who slipped the ball home on the the right side for a 2-0 lead.
“I am most happy with the cup,” Martinez said. “I think this team has had an incredible year, and I think we just have to appreciate the work of everyone this season, the players and coaching staff, because even though we had some ups and downs as a team, everyone on this team contributed something and made sacrifices. This is a win that we want to celebrate because it has been a long year and thank God also.”