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United, they stand: Atlanta quickly embraces new MLS team

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ATLANTA (AP) The stands are packed with red-and-black-clad fans who chant incessantly, accompanied by a steady drumbeat and swirling flags.

“Atlanta!” they shout from one end of Bobby Dodd Stadium

“United!” everyone else responds.

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There’s plenty to cheer about with an expansion team that has already displayed a dynamic style of play, scoring 11 goals in its first three games.

It’s early, but say this: Atlanta has really embraced Major League Soccer.

“It’s like a party out there every time you take the field,” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “Even coming out for warmups, you get goosebumps on your body. It’s just a great feeling.”

While impressive on the field, winning the last two games by a combined score of 10-1, United’s best work has some in the stands.

The inaugural contest, a 2-1 loss to New York Red Bulls that United led most of the way before surrendering two late goals, attracted a sellout of 55,297 to a stadium best known as the home of Georgia Tech’s college football team.

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It was larger than any crowd drawn this past season by the Yellow Jackets.

That was followed by turnout of 45,922 for Saturday’s 4-0 blowout of Chicago – another sellout, essentially, since the school closed off 10,000 seats in the upper deck for previously planned renovation work.

Not too shabby, considering United won’t even move into its permanent home, $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, until late July.

“The support has been just amazing. We’re very, very fortunate that we’ve got this atmosphere to play in front of,” defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We don’t want to take it for granted. We want to make this a real fortress and a place where teams dread to come to play.”

United is one of two new franchises that joined MLS this season, but it hardly has the look of a neophyte organization.

Not with a big-pockets owner such as Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL Falcons. Not with a well-known coach such as Gerardo “Tata” Martino, whose previous stints include Barcelona and guiding the mighty Argentina national team. Not with a roster that includes Josef Martinez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan on loan from Italian Serie A club Torino, as well as players such as Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad to press the attack.

[ MORE: Man Utd heading to USA this summer ]

 Atlanta United forward Martinez (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland, File)

Martinez already has an MLS-leading five goals, including two of the world-class variety in United’s latest victory.

Taking advantage of a Fire team that played most of the game a man down, Almiron threaded a pass between four defenders to send Martinez into the clear for his first goal in the 60th minute. Then, after another brilliant pass from Asad, the speedy forward flicked the ball away from the goalkeeper and managed to slowly curl the ball just inside the far post in the 82nd to finish off the rout.

“Josef Martinez is probably the best forward in this league,” Gressel said. “It’s not surprising to me that we can go out there and score four or five goals a game.”

After an international break, United faces a very tough stretch that will give a better indication of whether this team is a legitimate playoff contender in its very first season. Atlanta plays its next four games on the road before finally returning home April 30.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

Indeed, United’s debut hasn’t been entirely smooth.

In addition to blowing a lead in the opener, some Atlanta fans came under fire for chanting an anti-gay slur . Team officials quickly apologized and vowed to toss anyone who did it again. The crowd was on its best behavior Saturday, even unveiling a banner before the game that said, “Give Racism A Red Card.”

After the match was over, a long line snaked up to a merchandise stand on the west side of Bobby Dodd Stadium, everyone standing eagerly with credit cards in hand to gobble up more United gear.

In a city starved for championships, especially after the Falcons squandered a 25-point lead and lost to New England in last month’s Super Bowl, this team has provided a quick salve.

“It’s really special,” said goalkeeper Alec Kann, a native of the Atlanta area. “Things are moving in the right direction, for sure.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

For video on AP’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NFqhyY2qCc

Toronto FC beats Crew 5-0 to extend unbeaten streak to 8

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TORONTO (AP) Victor Vazquez scored twice and Toronto FC routed the Columbus Crew 5-0 on Friday night to extend its unbeaten streak to a franchise record-matching eight games.

[ MORE: Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape ]

Toronto (8-1-5) is 7-0-1 since its lone league loss of the season, a 2-1 decision in Columbus on April 15. Columbus (6-7-1) has lost five of seven since topping Toronto.

Justin Morrow and substitutes Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton also scored for MLS-leading Toronto. The Canadian team also was unbeaten in eight games (4-0-4) from May 8 to July 10, 2010.

Toronto was reduced to 10 men in the 81st minute when midfielder Marky Delgado was red-carded for a studs-up tackle on Columbus captain Wil Trapp. Osorio and Hamilton then scored to pad the lead for Toronto in its sixth shutout of the season.

Toronto played without the starting forward tandem of Sebastian Giovinco (injured) and Jozy Altidore (suspended for yellow card accumulation). Defender Nick Hagglund also is injured.

Agent: Barcelona offered more than Real for Vinicius Junior

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If Vinicius Junior can become half the player at Real Madrid that Neymar has lived up to be at Barcelona, Los Blancos will be pretty pleased.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Real closed the deal for the 16-year-old Brazilian this week, but there were several other lucrative offers on the table, according to the player’s agent, Frederico Pena.

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That includes bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona.

The agent stated that the Blaugrana did in fact offer a higher deal to acquire the Brazilian, however, he felt it would have complicated matters further to seek a greater offer from Real.

“There is practically unanimous view of the deal as a success,” Pena said. “If anybody gets criticised it is Real Madrid, for the risk they have taken, but they are sure that it will work. There were other clubs interested, and one offered to pay more money … Barca’s remuneration package offer for the player was higher than Real Madrid.

“But as we had reached an agreement with Real, we did not want to make this last push for them to match it. That could have embittered the relationship. Many people think it is crazy what Madrid are doing, but they were not alone in this craziness. They were not the only ones willing to pay this much for Vinicius.”

Pena also clarified as to why Vinicius chose Real over Barcelona, citing the player’s excitement about the development of Los Blancos during recent seasons under manager Zinedine Zidane and prior.

“Because Vinicius liked Madrid’s project better. There is always the feeling that players choose based on financial reasons, but that is not true. I assure you of that. Real Madrid’s negotiating posture was better.”

Real is on the verge of winning its third UEFA Champions League trophy in the last four seasons as the club prepares to face Juventus in the upcoming final.

Zidane’s men also won La Liga during the 2016/17 campaign.

Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape

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U.S. Soccer has come a long way over the years, and one of the nation’s most promising young players recognizes the progress the United States has made.

[ MORE: Man City acquire Monaco’s Silva after passing medical ]

Christian Pulisic, who plays for Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, is one of several young talents that U.S. hopes to finally bring the American men a moment of glory on the biggest of stages — the World Cup.

The 18-year-old has done just about everything a player of his age could do. He’s played in one of the top leagues in the world, appeared in various UEFA Champions League matches and now he’s likely on pace to appear in the 2018 World Cup, assuming the USMNT advances out of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The U.S., who have reached the World Cup during seven straight cycles, have come a long way in a short period of time, and Pulisic is happy with the improving U.S. Soccer landscape.

“It’s been big flaw of ours in the soccer department that a lot of our best athletes go and play other sports,” Pulisic told The Guardian. “But I think young players have seen me, and others, go over to Europe and play in some of the best leagues — and MLS is improving so much too.

“There’s so much potential and I think it’s changing: we’ve had some bigger athletes in the past but I don’t think that defines us anymore.

“We’re going to keep moving forward, developing young players and we’re going to have a really good shot in the next few years.”

During this past Bundesliga season, Pulisic recorded three goals and added six assists for a club that has become well known for its high-powered offensive attack.

Report: Kyle Walker a top target for Manchester City

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Manchester City could be looking to bolster its backline further this summer, and the Citizens could turn to Tottenham for help.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

According to ESPN FC, Pep Guardiola‘s side is growing more and more enamored with Spurs defender Kyle Walker and believes City can acquire the experienced outside back prior to the 2017/18 Premier League season.

With City already losing Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna since the end of the PL season, Guardiola will have to address the club’s lack of depth at outside back.

Several other big clubs have been considered in the running for Walker’s services, including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

The 26-year-old has been at White Hart Lane since joining Spurs in 2009 from Sheffield United and has made 222 appearances for the club in that span.