ATLANTA – OK, Atlanta United winning the MLS Cup Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium before 73,000 folks losing their minds was nice and everything, but it’s not what you think.
It’s not the Falcons capturing the Super Bowl. It’s not the Braves grabbing another World Series ring. It’s not the Hawks taking the NBA championship. It’s not the University of Georgia (UGA) football team solidifying its role as this region’s sport of the heart with a national champion.
Not only that, but it’s not even close.
It’s just . . . nice.
Those other teams and leagues have been around for decades. United is 2 years old in a league that wasn’t born until the season AFTER the 1995 Braves won Atlanta’s only previous world championship for a major pro sports team. So as somebody who has covered sports up close and personal around this city for 33 years, it’s time for a little perspective, please. This hugging of United by nearly anything that breathes throughout north Georgia is slightly more than a sugar high, but it’s not the start of a soccer revolution deep in the heart of Dixie over football, baseball or basketball.
Months, weeks or even days after thousands of these instant fans sprint toward the front of that United bandwagon leading the parade downtown set for Monday morning, the MLS championship will fade into memory. If nothing else, it will happen when United flirts with mediocrity next season since super coach Gerardo Martino is bolting for Mexico’s national team. United also will lose top players such as Miquel Almiron sooner rather than later to better leagues, and there are better leagues.
In the soccer universe, winning the MLS Cup is way down the list that includes the World Cup, English Premier League, Serie A, Russian Premier League, Eredivisie, Argentine Primera and a slew of others.
Sorry to ruin Atlanta’s fad of the moment.
Then there is this . . .
The Curse of the Bambino for the Boston Red Sox. That billy goat thing with the Chicago Cubs. The eternal Super Bowl misery of the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills. The inability of the Utah Jazz to grab The Big One despite having Basketball Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton picking and rolling forever. Those were singular horrors for cities involving sports teams. In contrast, you had wicked witches, goblins and ghouls doing their thing against Cleveland teams from the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball -- you know, after Jim Brown took the Browns to the 1964 NFL championship -- until LeBron James spent two years ago dribbling and willing the Cavaliers to an NBA title.
Since those other hexes came and went, and since MLS Cup titles don’t count, the one haunting Atlanta-area sports teams remain.
* You had that NBA Game 7 for the ages in May 1988, when Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird traded shot after shot at old Boston Garden, and Wilkins’ Hawks didn’t win. Worse, they should have ended that series against those powerful Celtics in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference in Game 6 in Atlanta, but the Hawks choked down the stretch.
* You had Jim Leyritz. After the Braves took the opening two games of the 1996 World Series at Yankee Stadium, they became the first team ever to do so and not grab the whole thing. They watched a huge lead in Game 4 become a tie game after a pinch-hit, three-run homer from Yankees backup catcher Leyritz, and the Braves fell easily in six games.
* You had 28-3. Just two seasons ago, the Falcons were in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots with that lead near the end of the third quarter. The Falcons didn’t win.
* You had Georgia’s football team holding a 13-point advantage last season in the second half over Alabama during the national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Since the UGA campus is an easy 90-minute drive to the east from downtown Atlanta, this was essentially a home game for the Bulldogs, and they also didn’t win.
And, yes. I know. United did win.
Exactly a week after Georgia relinquished another huge lead in the second half to Alabama (this time, it was 14 points in the SEC Championship game), United took that same field to face the Portland for the MLS Cup. You know the rest. Those around here who don’t call them United refer to them as the Five Stripes or as The Best Thing Ever To Happen To Them In Sports Since They Couldn’t Tell You When (with an asterisk), and United didn’t disappoint by turning much of the state into a screaming mess with a 2-0 victory.
Consider these three scenes:
* The singing, the chanting and the flag-waving in the Supporters Section lasted deep after the awards ceremony on the field.
* More than an hour after the game, I had to battle through a crowd near the press elevator, because the line to purchase championship souvenirs stretched from there to eternity.
* The pastor at my church never talks soccer, but his first words from the pulpit Sunday involved Atlanta United. For a moment, I thought he might talk less about Jesus and more about Josef, as in Martinez, the Atlanta United player named the Most Valuable Player of both the league and the MLS Cup.
Let’s get that asterisk out of the way, which is this: Atlanta has the most fickle consumers known to mankind. That applies to music, restaurants, night spots, vehicles, neighborhoods, clothing, haircuts and whatever is the latest gimmick involving a local sports team.
As for the latter, they’ve never had Falcons fans around here. They’ve had Deion Sanders fans or Dirty Bird fans or Michael Vick fans. When that person or fad left town, so did “Falcons” fans. They’ve never had Hawks fans. They’ve had Dominique Wilkin fans, and they stopped coming to Hawks games after he was traded in 1994. Three years earlier, the Braves began their Major League-record streak of 14 consecutive division titles. When the novelty of chopping and chanting at Braves home games began to wane during the mid-1990s, attendance slid, and Atlanta-area folks wanted something different.
Then along came United. In fact, around this town famous for that soft drink not named Pepsi, the Five Stripes are the New Coke.
At least, for the moment.