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Atlanta United's MLS Cup triumph ends city's long spell of sporting heartbreak

Atlanta United lift their first MLS Cup in just their second-ever season with a convincing 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers.
Michael Parkhurst talks about finally getting his hands on the elusive MLS Cup and Tata Martino's impact on both Atlanta United and MLS.

ATLANTA -- Michael Parkhurst had listened to these types of celebrations before. Four times, he'd ended up on the wrong side of MLS Cup finals. Four times, he'd ended up in a room of dejected teammates, listening to other people's joy bouncing down corridors and rushing past.

"I've dreamed of what it would feel like in the locker room with the champagne," Parkhurst said, who lost three consecutive title games with New England and another in Columbus. "I've heard it through the walls."

Atlanta sports fans know this sensation -- of being within touching distance of glory without experiencing it yourself -- all too well.

This is a city that had lost a pair of World Series and two Super Bowls since its last major pro sports championship in 1995; whose baseball team became synonymous with regular-season success followed by playoff letdowns; whose football team is infamous for the biggest title-game choke job in NFL history.

And so there was catharsis mixed in with standard-issue jubilation in the aftermath of Atlanta's 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup 2018, with Parkhurst playing a significant role in setting up the first goal.

Although Atlanta United was completing only its second season in Major League Soccer, it inherited some of its fans' emotional baggage. The pain of Super Bowl LI still lingers almost two years later. Locals could be overheard predicting a Portland upset based purely off their city's rotten sports luck.

"We've really heard a lot these last two weeks what it means for the city to be able to give a championship to them," goalkeeper Brad Guzan said.

Given that tortured history, once MLS Cup kicked off, there was remarkably little angst. Portland contained Atlanta's fearsome attack for nearly 40 minutes but was unable to create any chances of its own. There was never a "here we go" again moment for the record crowd of 73,019 to ruminate upon, no warning shots across the bow or anywhere near United's goal. Had the Timbers made it to half-time at 0-0, had the stalemate held for long enough to make the locals start to squirm nervously, maybe the whole night would have been different.

Michael Parkhurst lifts the MLS Cup, the city of Atlanta's first major pro sports trophy in over 20 years
Michael Parkhurst lifts the MLS Cup, Atlanta's first major pro sports trophy in more than 20 years.

But Parkhurst had noticed in film study Portland forward Jeremy Ebobisse's tendency to shift the ball onto his left foot in possession. So in the 39th minute, when Parkhurst spotted Ebobisse opening up his body inside his own half, he sensed an opening to slip his foot in and prodded the ball toward the Timbers box.

"Josef did all the work from there," Parkhurst said. "He did what he did best."

Josef Martinez, the league's Most Valuable Player who set its single-season scoring record this year, surged past a lunging Liam Ridgewell, rounded goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and finished into an empty net. Cue pandemonium.

Martinez -- who was named the title game's MVP -- set up the second goal, too. He won a free kick that the Timbers bemoaned afterward, headed Miguel Almiron's cross into the path of an onrushing Franco Escobar, and the party was on.

The noise level was raucous throughout. Mercedes-Benz's futuristic light show whipped the crowd into a frenzy during the build-up, and Malea Emma's national anthem brought the house down.

The atmosphere befitted the occasion all night, and this felt unlike any of the league's previous championship games, an indication that MLS has perhaps arrived on another plane of relevancy.

Most of the second half felt more like a coronation than anything. Portland did craft a handful of chances to get back into the game but couldn't make them count. The magic that powered the Timbers' run from the Western Conference fifth seed all the way here ran out; they looked spent by the effort.

"You started to sense that they'd started to throw in the towel somewhat," Guzan said, and he and his teammates were allowed to bask in the moment long before the final whistle blew.

Almiron, who was electric all match in Atlanta's midfield and is likely to follow coach Tata Martino out the door this offseason, was withdrawn to sustained applause in the 91st minute. The crowd cranked the volume up even louder during stoppage time, building to a crescendo as soon when the game went final.

Red confetti erupted from cannons as Parkhurst, the captain, lifted the big-eared MLS Cup trophy with his teammates on a stage erected at midfield. The spectators lingered, relishing the long-sought accomplishment. No championship provides the depth of emotion of the first following a prolonged drought, and everybody wanted to hold on to the feeling for as long as they could.

The home locker room was a madhouse, players spraying one another from cartoonishly large bottles of Heineken, eyes protected from the sting with ski goggles.

Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank got doused in beer after the team's MLS Cup win
Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank got doused in beer during the wild celebrations in the locker room.

How did his dreams of being on the victorious side live up to the reality, Parkhurst was asked when he was temporarily pulled away from the scrum.

"Every bit as great," he said, MLS Cup champion hat pulled low on his head. "It's amazing in there. It's tough to describe. It's such a good group of guys. It's so nice to have been able to go out there and have a good performance and win. We came in as such big favorites, and that's difficult, to have the pressure on us -- of hosting, of having more points in the regular season. But the team stepped up.

"Yeah," he said, his reflective pause saying it all. "I'm going to enjoy the rest of the night." He wasn't alone, and the party isn't likely to slow down any time soon. The championship parade is set for Monday, down Baker and Marietta Streets towards Mercedes-Benz.

This type of celebration has existed only in Atlantan dreams for more than two decades. Given how far Atlanta United has come so quickly, one gets the sense that the city won't have to wait nearly as long for another.

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