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ATLANTA — In the span of eight days, two championship games were held at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the $1.6 billion palace that will host a large number of major American sports events over the next decade.

One of them was the Southeastern Conference title game, as much a tradition in this part of the country as sweet tea. The other was the MLS Cup, which several years ago would have probably registered somewhere between darts and shuffleboard as a championship worth getting excited about.

But for anyone within earshot of the 73,019 people who jammed into the place on Saturday and pulsated with energy all night as Atlanta United secured its first MLS title, there was no comparison about which event had more volume and verve.

College football is always going to be the South's first love, but soccer is its white-hot fling, burrowing deep into the heartbeat of the city in a way that seemed completely improbable when owner Arthur Blank announced he was starting a team in 2014.

Two seasons into this experiment, Atlanta is not only doing it in a way 24-year-old MLS has never seen but offering a reimagined model of what this sometimes overlooked league can be.

"It just took the right combination of city, of venue, of training ground, of players most importantly," said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who began his professional career 13 years ago with an MLS team that folded (Chivas USA) only to come back to the league in 2017 with an expansion team that has done nothing but thrive. "It all started with the vision from (Blank). He's the man behind all this. He thought it could prevail; this sport, a team in this city, and it all started with a belief."

Without the ambition and the investment that went along with it, however, the belief wasn't going to go very far. Blank, who amassed his fortune as the co-founder of Home Depot and also owns the NFL's Falcons, made the call early on that Atlanta United was going to do this the right way by building top-of-the-line training grounds, spending significant sums in MLS terms to acquire players and hiring an internationally well-known coach in Tata Martino, who had once led FC Barcelona and the Argentinian national team.

"This club had a plan from the very beginning — from the first time we spoke in September 2016," Martino said through an interpreter Saturday night. "The important thing is this club never modified from those plans they had told me. That's very important, and what makes this club very successful is the club had a plan and the directors have followed that plan to a T."

But who could have really imagined that Atlanta United would become this?

While even soccer skeptics have seen general interest in the sport grow over the last decade, the safe bet was that Atlanta could tap into a solid niche demographic of young, corporate transplants and suburban soccer parents and perhaps draw consistent crowds of 20,000-30,000 while remaining on the fringes of the mainstream sports conversation. In a lot of MLS markets, that's considered a pretty big success.

Instead, Atlanta United became almost a cultural phenomenon when it made its debut in 2017, regularly drawing crowds of 70,000 and changing the paradigm of the local media where MLS isn't treated as this minor league thing that can be ignored but rather included as part of the daily conversation on sports talk radio.

And suddenly, when you snap your fingers and you're in an MLS Cup, you have a night that looks every bit like a Super Bowl or college football national championship game with people paying hundreds of dollars just to get in the door and more than 73,000 ear-splitting fans who stood up for the national anthem and never sat down even once until the confetti was being sprayed.

"The support we get is incredible," team captain Michael Parkhurst said. "It's such an awesome place to play. The facilities, the staff, the fans and everything is just top notch, and hopefully it's taking MLS to the next level because it's great for the league."

The question now, after Atlanta's quick sprint to the best version of MLS that has ever existed, is whether that same energy can be replicated. In fact, can it even be sustained?

At some point, the newness will wear off for Atlanta United. It's possible the success won't go on forever. Then what?

In the next few weeks, Atlanta United will have to replace Martino, who is reportedly set to coach the Mexican national team. There is speculation that Miguel Almiron, who was arguably the best player in the league this season, is headed to the English Premier League for perhaps an MLS-record transfer fee. Though goal-scoring sensation Josef Martinez is expected to return, there's always the chance the club will get an offer it can't refuse.

"If you ask the fans, this is the bar," veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. "The ceiling becomes the floor and you just hope to jump on top of it and push it up. But look, Tata has done so much and he's no longer here. We'll see how that's filled. We'll see if Miguel leaves and how that's filled. But the ethos of the club is to win, to be at the top, to push, to hopefully push the league, and I think we've done that this year."

Atlanta United isn't going to stop pushing, and it will have a big budget to replace the stars it might lose. But nothing's guaranteed in competitive sports, and now the target on Atlanta's back will be even bigger.

There are also going to be teams, perhaps some that already exist and others coming into MLS soon including Cincinnati, Nashville and Inter Miami CF that will want to re-create some of what Atlanta has. Even if MLS isn't the highest level of soccer in the world right now, Atlanta proved that a good product in the right market under the right circumstances can look every bit as impressive and fun as any professional sport in the U.S.

"Over the last couple of years with the injection of money, you'll either see a separation or you'll see guys at the top pulling up the people at the bottom and saying come along, but you never know," Larentowicz said. "This club is totally invested and said they want to be a winner, and if they pull up the rest of the league, that's great. If not, the teams that do what Atlanta does and what some other teams around the league do, they're going to be successful."

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December 10, 2018


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