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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

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.