Stejskal: With MLS Cup, Atlanta show just how high they've raised the bar

ATLANTA – Atlanta United began as the most ambitious project in the history of Major League Soccer. On Saturday night, a little more than four years after they were founded and a little less than two years after they played their first game, they showed the rest of the league just how high they’ve raised the bar.

Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Tata Martino and the rest of the Five Stripes cruised to the MLS Cup title on Saturday, defeating the Portland Timbers 2-0 in front of a record crowd of 73,019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In doing so, they hammered home the new notion of what an MLS team can be.

With the right combination of ownership, investment, infrastructure, executives, coaches, supporters and players, an MLS club can become a force on the field and in the stands. They can transcend the insular, relatively small world of American and Canadian soccer. They can be Atlanta United.

“There’s no limit,” said captain Michael Parkhurst.

Everything we saw on Saturday, the stars, the crowd, the Cup, began with a vision from club owner Arthur Blank. The longtime owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons believed in the face of plenty of skeptics that, if built properly, an MLS team could thrive in Georgia. From the very beginning, he put Atlanta United on the same level as his Falcons. No expense would be spared, no detail overlooked.

Blank’s first move set the tone. A few months after it was announced that they’d been awarded an expansion team, he hired former Tottenham and West Brom executive Darren Eales as club president and CEO. With his experience in the English Premier League and his background in the American game, Eales, who played at Brown University and had a brief run in the US lower divisions in the mid-90s, gave Atlanta instant cachet.

They only grew from there. Eales began by expertly filling his front office. In 2015, he hired former US men’s national team captain Carlos Bocanegra and ex-Orlando City GM Paul McDonough to lead the club’s technical staff. The trio complemented each other well. Eales is experienced in negotiating huge transfers; Bocanegra understands the dynamics of a good locker room; McDonough, who is now sporting director of Inter Miami, launched an expansion team and knows all the vagaries of MLS.

Together, they reeled in a series of big fish. Martino was hired as head coach after he left Argentina’s national team in the summer of 2016. Almiron and Martinez followed that winter. Along with Parkhurst and veterans like goalkeeper Brad Guzan and midfielder/defender Jeff Larentowicz, those three have keyed Atlanta’s on-field success. Atlanta have been the most exciting attacking team in MLS since they joined the league, scoring 70 goals in each of their first two seasons. They’re no slouches defensively, either, as they showed in a pragmatic run to Cup in which they allowed just two goals in five games.

As Eales explained after the confetti settled on Saturday, the young, exciting team has been all the marketing the club has needed. Atlanta may have initially come out in support of the Five Stripes out of a sense of intrigue. They’ve kept coming back in huge numbers because of how damn good they are. Thanks to the investment of Blank, the hit rate of the front office, the coaching of Martino and the execution of the players, Atlanta are a cut above the rest of MLS.

“It just took the right combination of city, of venue, of training ground and of players, most importantly,” said Guzan. “It all started with the vision from Arthur. He’s the man behind all of this. He thought that it could prevail, the sport, a team in this city and it all started with his belief. And Darren, Carlos, Paul, who’s obviously left, but those guys, they did their homework in terms of putting together this team, this roster from Day 1. Now, to celebrate like we are now after year 2, it’s huge.”

To call MLS Cup a validation of Atlanta’s model wouldn’t be quite right. Even if they’d lost to Portland, the Five Stripes would still be among the very best clubs in MLS. The championship was more of an exclamation. Another statement to the rest of the league: This is the new ceiling. You can try and keep up, or you can get left behind.

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