ATLANTA – How do you put the collective primal scream of 73,019 souls into words on a page?
I really don’t know. Maybe I should just embed the video and be done with it.
Saturday’s edition was the seventh MLS Cup final I’ve attended, and while all of them are special and memorable, Atlanta United’s pulsating 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium stands in a class of its own, just like so many of the other achievements the Five Stripes have notched in their brief existence.
“This crowd is something unbelievable,” said ATLUTD left back Greg Garza, who has experienced more than his share of fervent soccer culture in a career ranging from Brazil to Portugal to Mexico and beyond.
“Tonight, I came in at halftime, my ears were ringing completely, couldn’t hear anyone speaking in the locker room. That just proves that I think they’re probably two times as loud as they were in a regular-season game. Besides maybe the New York Red Bulls [Conference Championship] game, that’s the second time that’s happened to all of us. You come in and you kind of have to take a moment to really, you know, figure out what’s going on and not hear the ‘ATL’ chants. This city’s a soccer city and now we can be proud to say that it’s a championship soccer city.”
The confluence of an enormous venue with ear-splitting acoustics, a host city madly in love with their title contenders and a proud visiting team cheered on by some 2,000 traveling supporters turned this one into a cauldron of noise and spectacle that won’t soon be forgotten. Especially by those who can remember when – not all that long ago – this game was nowhere near the hot ticket it is today.
“It was very different. Very different,” said a pensive Jeff Larentowicz postgame when I asked him to compare this occasion to the three MLS Cup finals he played in for the New England Revolution from 2005-07. “They’re all special. Tonight is a little different, though.”
In 2012 MLS shifted from a neutral-site cup final to having the higher-seeded finalist host it. And while the home side has won most of those games, on Saturday players on both sides acknowledged that with the sheer scale of Atlanta’s home-field advantage, well, it’s hardly even fair.
“You couldn’t hear anything,” said Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, showing some nostalgia for the old hosting format. “It was very loud, and the whole week that we’ve been here it’s just kind of felt like the Atlanta show. Hopefully the league is at a place where we can start getting neutral[-site] finals, because both teams work pretty hard to get here and we come into this type of environment, and obviously it’s fairly difficult.”
“At the end of the day it was an amazing atmosphere to be a part of – Atlanta should be really proud of what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve built here, because it’s a huge step forward for MLS and it was pretty impressive.”
Standing in a beer-soaked, tarp-lined home locker room littered with the debris of the Five Stripes’ joyful celebrations, Larentowicz more or less agreed.
“Honestly, to have a team host an MLS Cup is difficult. It’s got to be so hard,” he said. “I don’t know how you expect it to be a neutral game. It’s not. It’s a different game, totally. For them to come in here and play in this environment, it’s difficult. But on the flipside, we’re going out there saying we’re going to take it and run with it; I felt we did. The crowd has always been there for us, they’ve always supported us. Tonight as soon as we went out for warmup, it was electric.”
Rowdy. Proud. 🔊— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) December 9, 2018
We heard you all year long.
We definitely heard you tonight.
Thank you, Atlanta! pic.twitter.com/6p2AcvkA6r
From the record-breaking attendance to the pageantry of the pregame tifo – unfurled by both sides – to the steely, take-no-prisoners tone on the field that further inflamed everyone’s passions, this was an MLS Cup against which all others will be measured from here on out.
“Before the game when you walk out, you take it in, you see people all way up in the rafters. And you see this is incredible, the way that the league has grown,” said Timbers defender Zarek Valentin. “I got drafted by Chivas USA, which speaks for itself. And to see the way the league has grown is fantastic.”
And the rest of the planet will take note, too, pointed out ATLUTD president Darren Eales.
“Tonight, this is going to resonate around the world,” he said, “because you had 73,000 creating an amazing atmosphere, seeing a team that’s exciting and dynamic to watch, and that’s great for the sport in this country.”