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Win or lose MLS Cup, favorite Atlanta United sets high bar for new franchises

December 7, 2018

I dont envy FC Cincinnati. Nor do I envy Inter Miami or Austin FC. Or any other expansion franchises that Major League Soccer might add in the coming years, because all of them will be judged against the accomplishments of Atlanta United. The Five Stripes play for the MLS Cup on Saturday, playing host against the Portland Timbers (7 p.m., Ch. 9) as heavy favorites to lift the championship in just their second season.

Itd be an appropriate reward for the new gold standard among new MLS franchises.

Minnesota United, which made the move to MLS at the same time as Atlanta, has lived out the traditional expansion timeline. The Loons have struggled for two seasons under a journeyman coach and with a roster full of slightly-too-seasoned veterans and as-yet-unproven young players, grappling both with their on-field play and finding their off-field place in a crowded sports marketplace.

Atlanta endured no such growing pains. It moved into a stadium shared with the NFLs Falcons and started filling it immediately. The team signed a world-class coach in Gerardo Tata Martino, who quickly molded budding South American attackers like Josef Martandiacute;nez and Miguel Almirandoacute;n into top-end league talent. He also cobbled together a stable squad behind them. MLS has seen plenty of big-spending, big-dreaming teams flop, but Atlanta started hot and has hardly cooled since.

In the process, Martinos squad has already moved on to a question that often takes a decade to haunt new teams: Can they win the big one?

For two consecutive years Atlanta failed to win on the regular seasons final day with a big prize on the line a first-round bye in the playoffs last year, a Supporters Shield this year. It lost, at home, on penalties in last years playoff knockout round. Its fans hope that this years conference finals, when Atlanta blitzed New York 3-0 in the first leg and then waltzed to a calm 3-1 aggregate victory, is a harbinger of a new big-game-winning type of team.

On the other side are the Portland Timbers, playing their fourth consecutive playoff round as an underdog. Under new coach Gio Savarese, the Timbers started the year with a five-game losing streak, thanks mostly to a porous defense. Savarese sensibly decided to throw away his pre-season plans and switch to focusing on defending, and his team responded with a 15-game unbeaten streak. Thats the type of pragmatic success that Minnesota fans have seen for years from Savarese, who regularly defeated Minnesota when he coached the New York Cosmos against the Loons in the old NASL.

The contrast should make for an absorbing contest Saturday, as Atlantas success is based on attacking and Portlands is based on defending. Its worked for Portland so far in these playoffs, but Martandiacute;nez and Almirandoacute;n and company are beyond what theyve faced in previous rounds.

Triumph or not, Atlanta may have to rebuild over the winter. Martandiacute;nez, the league MVP, and Almirandoacute;n likely will be sold to big-name European teams. Martino is heavily rumored to be taking over the Mexican national team. But after the initial build went so well, theres no reason to bet against more success in Atlantas future. Other expansion teams will find it a tough blueprint to match.

Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. jmarthaler@gmail.com

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