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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.

[ MORE: Should injured USMNT be worried? ]

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

MLS Snapshot: Philadelphia Union 3-0 Columbus Crew

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The game in 100 words (or less)Goals from Ilsinho, CJ Sapong, and Marcus Epps led the Philadelphia Union to a 3-0 win over the Crew, who had not one but two players sent off in the loss. Jonathan Mensah saw red in the 35th minute for denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity, and Lalas Abubakar was sent off for violent conduct with about a quarter hour to play. Sapong had two assists and Ilsinho added a helper too. Philly pulls to within five points of sixth-place Columbus, and have played one less game.

Three moments that mattered

20′  — Overhead pass gets deserved finish — Ilsinho made Zack Steffen’s diving attempt look feeble with a blast after Sapong’s bike-like ball across the box.

38′ — Alberg PK denied — Did we mention it could’ve been worse for Philly? Roland Alberg was stopped by the left hand of the law, er, Steffen. The left hand of the Steffen.

81′ — Epps puts it to bed — The man was credited with eight shots on the night, as 22-year-old Marcus Epps has his first MLS goal (He has scored in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup).

Man of the Match: Sapong.

Conte questions Spurs ambitions: “You must buy expensive players”

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Like most Spurs fans, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has noticed that Tottenham isn’t spending during this summer transfer window.

He’s also heard the remarks of Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, who said the spending from many other Premier League clubs is “unsustainable.”

Conte’s reply? Maybe not winning’s okay to you, Dan.

[ WATCH: Neymar scores vs. Man Utd ]

The Chelsea boss defends the massive money being doled out on players by, essentially, saying ambitious clubs have to keep up with other ambitious clubs. And without digging into the profit margins of Spurs and other PL clubs, perhaps he has a point.

Also, you can’t help but appreciate the subtle dig at Liverpool, as if to say, “Yeah, maybe they care.”

From the BBC:

“If [Spurs] don’t win the title, it’s not a tragedy. If they don’t arrive in the Champions League, it’s not a tragedy. If they go out in the first round of the Champions League, it’s not a tragedy. If they go out after the first game that they play in the Europa League and go down against Gent, it’s not a tragedy.

“Maybe for Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and – I don’t know – Liverpool, it is a tragedy. You must understand this. You must understand the status of the team.

“Every team has to understand what their ambitions are. If their ambitions are to fight for the title or try to win the Champions League, you must buy expensive players. Otherwise you continue to stay in your level. It’s simple. My question is this: What are Tottenham’s expectations?”

Again, we’re not poring over the financials of these clubs, but it is saying something that Spurs have not bought any new players and sold Kyle Walker to Man City for $59 million. If the market says players are worth that, than the logic goes that Spurs cannot improve without investing that sum into players.

And look, Mr. Levy, you spent $40 million on Moussa Sissoko and close to $30m on Vincent Janssen. It’s not like we’re talking about a totally new world here.

It wasn’t all negative, or passive aggressive negative, from Conte, who said Harry Kane is the top striker worth buying in the world, and valued him at more than $131 million.

FOLLOW LIVE: Lineups as the USMNT goes trophy hunting

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Levi’s Stadium is the scene as the United States men’s national team looks to wrestle the Gold Cup back after Mexico claimed the 2015 championship.

Jamaica is the opponent, and an incredible story all things considered, as the Reggae Boyz hope their second-straight tournament final is the occasion for their first Gold Cup crown.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Stats, scores from Gold Cup Final ]

Kickoff is slated for about 9:45 p.m. ET, with the pageantry from California getting started at 9:30.

There are no real surprises in the XI, aside from Bruce Arena’s continued use of Graham Zusi at right back. Omar Gonzalez pairs with Matt Besler in the heart of the defense, with Michael Bradley, Kellyn Acosta, Darlington Nagbe, and Paul Arriola combining for an industrious midfield.

Jozy Altidore and Jordan Morris are up top, while Jorge Villafana fills out the lineup at left back with Tim Howard in goal.

Clint Dempsey is on the bench, perhaps awaiting another super sub performance.

WATCH: Neymar dizzies Valencia, gets Suarez pick to score vs. Man Utd

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All three parts of the MSN trident helped Barcelona produce an International Champions Cup goal against Manchester United on Wednesday, though not in the most traditional of fashions.

Lionel Messi’s through ball was off target, and Neymar rushed onto it before spinning toward goal. Luis Suarez literally shoved Chris Smalling out of contention to stop the Brazilian, and Neymar did the rest with a finish past David De Gea.

[ REPORT: Barca confident of Coutinho deal ]

Say it with me, “It’s preseason for the officials, too, you guys.”

Neymar’s goal has given Barcelona a 1-0 lead over United, and the match is at halftime. Obviously, he hasn’t been sent to Paris Saint-Germain.