For the second time this season Atlanta United fans can scream the same words as they leave Mercedes-Benz: “We are Champions.” Many people felt when soccer came to the city that it would take years and years for the team to accomplish anything of importance. How wrong they were. I was on the opposite side of that debate. There was a piece that I had written 6 months before United’s first game. In short, I formed the reasoning as to why the sport would go over so well in Atlanta, and how it was more than possible to win the MLS Cup in under 3 years.
One of the main reasons was because of the large Hispanic population in this state, in particular in The City of Atlanta, where so many flocked to help build the infrastructure for the 1996 Olympics. There is still a large Hispanic population in Atlanta, which no doubt led to a larger following than most anticipated. The second reason was the hiring of Tata Martino. Being half Catalan (Spanish) myself, I knew very well of his coaching prowess and excellent ability to bring players together. The final main point was that Atlanta now had something different than the old pro soccer leagues, now we had the brilliance and business savvy of Arthur Blank, and a beautiful new stadium in which to play. The other thing no one should ever discount about our great city is how amazing Atlanta fans support their teams. Every game the furious noise of the crowd at Mercedes Benz is deafening. It reminds me of Sanford Stadium when I ran out of the tunnel for the first time against GA Southern. The first thought through my head was the scene from “Gladiator”, as the fighters enter the Roman Coliseum for the first time and are awestruck by the sight. It’s enough to put chills down your spine 10 years later. That is what Atlanta Fans bring to the table, something other states claim to possess, but not like down South.
The US Open Cup was played against Minnesota last night. It was a very intense game with a lot of end to end play mixed in with the FDB style of possession and waiting for open chances. The first opportunity was an odd one. In the 16th minute LGP flicked what seemed like a cross; only to have the ball soar over the keepers head after a slight deflection. The keeper got a hand to it, only to have the ball fall across the line for the goal, 1-0 Atlanta. Although any professional footballer when asked will tell you they meant to do that, there is no doubt it was a cross that simply had lady lucky guiding it into the goal. As the great Erk Russell always said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Atlanta has made a lot of their luck this season however, the pace and ferocity which they play with have been hallmarks of their success and have no doubt contributed to many of their wins.
The second goal scored by Atlanta was no mistake. Although the defending was poor by Minnesota, the ball was rushed into the box by Justin Meram. Left with yards of room, after a quick move inside he fed the ball directly to the feet of Pity Martinez. The United attacking midfielder took the ball one time with the inside of his right foot. Firing home the 2nd goal in the game. The interesting thing about this goal is the omnipresent Alexi Lalas’s commentary. Although Martinez was probably 15 yards from the goal and one-timed the ball in with such skill, somehow Lalas claimed that he should finish that every time. That is just an absurd statement. The ball was whipped in with such pace that it took a tremendous amount of skill to put the ball in the upper 90 in the fashion he did. Pity struck the ball so sweetly that to call it a run of the mill goal does a huge disservice to the Argentinean. The finish was sublime and put the 5 Stripes up 2-0. The game, however, was not yet over, and Minnesota had no intention of lying down.
Then in the 20th minute, Barco struck the ball perfectly attempting to finesse the ball into the lower right corner of the goal. The ball went past 3 or 4 bodies before the keeper ever saw it. The fact that he was able to make the diving save was spectacular for the Minnesota keeper and certainly kept the game close. Then came the first goal for Minnesota. A bouncing cross put in gave Robin Lod a chance at point-blank. Although it certainly was not a great strike the ball bounced passed Guzan into the corner of the net. After watching the goal it became apparent that if Lod had taken that same shot 50 times, he would likely miss more than he would make. Regardless the scoreboard now read 2-1, and the air in the stadium became a bit tense. In the 56th minute, Josef Martinez had a golden chance to seal the game but was blocked by the keeper to keep the score within one.
Then in the 69th minute, Brad Guzan made a crucial stop from a blast at close range. He parried the ball away to keep the rebound from falling to another Minnesota player and saved Atlanta from perhaps extra time. Then the situation seemed to take a turn for the worse. LGP accrued 2 yellow cards in under 4 minutes on what were quite frankly meaningless fouls. The kind of fouls that lose you huge games like the US Open Cup. Now Atlanta had to face the last 15 minutes of the game with 10 men, which is always a defenses worst nightmare. Indeed Minnesota had some golden chances that they simply could not put away. In stoppage time a shot was missed from 5 yards away and skied over the crossbar, all but ensuring Atlanta’s place as champions of the US Open Cup.
This now sets United up for something monumental. If our team can win the MLS Cup a second consecutive year, it will surely cement our place as one of, if not the best team in the Western Hemisphere. We now have a significant chance to not only repeat but to win the MLS equivalent of The Treble. That would truly be an incredible feat to accomplish in just a few seasons, especially given everything the team has already skillfully achieved. Atlanta seems to be hitting their stride at the perfect time of the season, right before the playoffs begin. With the talent that steps foot on the pitch game in and game out, the rest of the MLS teams must be fearful of The 5 Stripes.
They absolutely should be.