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Atlanta becomes U.S. soccer’s new hotbed, but will it last?

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ATLANTA (AP) The cheer begins slowly, rhythmically – everyone raising their hands above their heads, clapping in sync to the beat of the drum, screaming in unison and picking up speed with each chant.

A! ….. T! ….. L!

A! … T! ….L!

A! T! L!

[ MORE: Latest in Crew relocation saga ]

Welcome to soccer’s newest hotbed, which has sprouted in a city known for its fickle sports fans and all the heartbreak doled out by its teams.

Atlanta United has been a shining star amid a year of intense disappointment for American soccer , a dashing, high-scoring team that has drawn record crowds and stirred fervent passion in its very first season.

From packed stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, to flag-waving fans who bounce up and down from the opening kick to the final whistle , an Atlanta United game provide the latest glimmer of hope that the U.S. might someday embrace the world’s most popular sport the way the rest of the world does.

“This is unprecedented, certainly in our sport,” said Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer. “This team has attracted the attention of the entire soccer- and football-playing world.”

[ RECAP: Spurs 2-3 West Ham | Pochettino reacts ]

Garber knew something was up when United sold more than 30,000 season tickets Before playing its first game. Then, a crowd of 55,000 turned out for opening night , which was held in a college football stadium on Georgia Tech’s campus while workers scrambled to finish $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium .

As the days and weeks and months passed, from the promise of spring through the heat of summer to the changing leaves of fall, the fans kept coming. When the team finally moved into new retractable-roof home in mid-September, they didn’t let up. Finally, this past weekend, a crowd of 71,874 attended the regular-season finale , more than any other single game in MLS history.

It was hardly an anomaly. United set the previous record five weeks earlier with its first 70,000-plus turnout. For the season, Atlanta averaged 48,200 per game, easily eclipsing the mark set two years earlier by Seattle, the MLS’ flagship franchise. For comparison’s sake, United’s numbers eclipsed the top team in Italy’s Serie A during the 2016-17 season and would’ve ranked in the upper half of the attendance table for any of Europe’s top leagues.

United has provided some much-needed good news for American soccer, which is still reeling from the stunning failure of the U.S. national team to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia .

“Without any history on this club, to build something like that, to build the support that we got, that’s very impressive, that in just one year we could get to this point,” said Kevin Kratz, a German midfielder who plays for United.

Actually, Atlanta’s soccer history goes back to the fledgling days of the sport in the U.S.

The Chiefs were founded in 1967 and captured the first championship in the North American Soccer League (NASL). But the team never drew as many as 7,000 fans per game, bouncing between Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Georgia Tech’s stadium and even a high school facility south of the city. Hardly anyone noticed when the franchise went out of business in 1973, having spent its final year known as the Apollos.

[ MORE: Cyle Larin says he’s ready for Europe ]

The Chiefs returned in 1979, this time owned by Ted Turner, but not much changed. Attendance was poor and the team struggled on the field, lasting only three years before folding again.

This is a totally different scenario. United was built for success, from owner Arthur Blank (who also owns the NFL Falcons) to a new stadium to a metro area that is now home to nearly 6 million people and a far more diverse population than it had during the Chiefs era.

Still, the popularity of the team caught everyone off guard.

“There was just an energy and a passion that I think is just similar to whether you’re in Europe watching a game, whether you’re in South America,” United president Darren Eales said. “The fans stand up for the whole game, the fans doing the A-T-L Icelandic chant, those sort of rituals and excitement behind the game … I think it’s a new America. It’s a sport that brought together the city of Atlanta, a city of transplants that’s very international.

“It’s become their club.”

The day after the regular season ended, United was recognized for its impressive debut when MLS awarded the 2018 All-Star Game to Mercedes-Benz Stadium . But the team has more immediate priorities, having qualified for the playoffs and the chance to host a first-round game against Columbus – an original MLS franchise that, in an interesting twist, is pondering a possible move to Texas because of waning attendance and demands for a new stadium.

Another huge, raucous crowd is expected Thursday night.

“They aren’t just spectators,” said United goalkeeper Brad Guzan, a longtime member of the U.S. national team. “They’re involved in terms of their voice. … It’s truly remarkable.”

United is hoping to build the sort of championship success that has eluded Atlanta’s big league teams. Other than the Chiefs’ long-forgotten title, the Braves are the only other franchise to win it all, and that was more than two decades ago in the 1995 World Series.

More indicative of the city’s sports history was the Falcons’ performance in the last Super Bowl. They squandered a 25-point lead in the second half and lost to the New England Patriots in overtime, casting a pall over Atlanta that still lingers just a bit .

Off the field, United still must prove it can hold the city’s attention for a sustained period.

Look no further than Atlanta’s two National Hockey League teams, the Flames and the Thrashers. Both drew large crowds in their early days, but it didn’t last.

Both wound up leaving the city .

United intends to write a new chapter.

They may be on to something.

“Actually, I’m not surprised,” said Elizabeth Edwards, who attended the final regular-season game. “Soccer has been huge in Georgia, and it’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I’m a middle-school teacher, so I watch my kids play. They care more about soccer than they do football.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

MLS Snapshot: Sounders in firm control after Leg 1

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders took full control of the Western Conference finals with a resounding 2-0 win over ten-man Houston. The Sounders already had hit first in the 11th minute through Gustav Svensson but the red card to Jalil Anibaba changed the game. Houston had some chances later but fatigue meant the focus and control was off. Former Dynamo striker Will Bruin’s goal may have put the tie to bed.

Three moments that mattered

11′ — Gustav Svensson Goal — The Sounders wanted to set the tone early and they picked up an early goal off a corner kick, as Svensson redirected a header past Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. The goal changed the complexion of the game to that point, until our next big moment.

28′ — Jalil Anibaba red card — Joevin Jones was a menace to deal with tonight and after getting past Anibaba, the latter pulled Jones down and as it appeared to be denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, Anibaba was given his marching orders. Suddenly, Houston, down a goal and down a man, had a lot more to do to stay in the tie. Nicolas Lodeiro missed the subsequent penalty kick but Will Bruin picked Lodeiro up later.

42′ — Will Bruin goal — The former Dynamo man scored a massive goal against his former club on a great cross from Jones on the left wing. While the tie isn’t over, the Sounders are in firm control and look set to repeat as Western Conference playoffs champions.

Man of the Match: Joevin Jones

Three things: Sounders cruise after (and before) early red

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The Seattle Sounders all but booked a return appearance in the 2017 MLS Cup final on Tuesday, doing so by beating the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the first (away) leg of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. The game wasn’t as close at the final score might appear to indicate.

[ RECAP: Sounders take 2-0 lead over Dynamo ]

We learned the following three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


The red card hurt Houston

No way, you’re kidding, right? Clearly a 28th-minute red card (shown to Jalil Anibaba for the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity) is going to have a massive impact on the outcome of a game. But, it really crippled Houston, given the way they play — having a numerical advantage in the center of midfield is so important to Wilmer Cabrera’s side, in the name of frantically winning the ball back after conceding half or even two-thirds of the field.

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When you have to haul off one of three central midfielders, in hopes of still being about to force-create chances on the rare occasion you recover the ball and move it forward, three things are bound to happen: 1) legs are going to get very heavy, very quickly; 2) the clock appears to be counting up in double-speed; 3) you begin to concede two-thirds and three-quarters of the field instead — every move Seattle worked during the second half came after a waltz in the final third before finally meeting resistance.

At right, you can see every Sounders pass originating in Houston’s half of the field — remember, Seattle are the away team here. Playoff games rarely, if ever, come much easier than that.


Addition by subtraction… again?

This one isn’t so much a lesson from Tuesday’s game, as much as it’s a trend played out over the course of an entire season: much like they wound up being in 2016 following Clint Dempsey‘s heart condition robbing him of the final four months of the season, the Sounders are once again, dare I say it, better without another indomitable figure: Osvaldo Alonso.

Here’s the numbers to back it up: without Alsono in the starting lineup this year, Seattle went 6W-2D-2L. In those 10 regular-season games, they scored 20 goals (2.0 per game, versus 1.3 with him in the lineup) and conceded 12 (1.1 per game, same when he played).

The central midfield pairing of Cristian Roldan (7) and Gustav Svensson (4) has proven a formidable foe for anyone and everyone during the second half of the season. On Tuesday — granted, against 10 men for more than an hour — they could do no wrong. (Passes attempted on the right; defensive actions on the left — green triangles are tackles won, orange are recoveries, blue are interceptions, purple are clearances, red are tackles lost.)

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Alonso has been an unbelievable servant for nine MLS seasons, he’s an MLS Cup champions, a four-time U.S. Open Cup winner, a Supporters’ Shield winner and one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS history. He’s also 32 years old with a growing history of lower-body injuries that seem to never fully heal, and he’s now clearly third in the pecking order behind Roldan and Svensson. It’s clearly an oversimplification to say that soccer is a young, mobile man’s game these days, but it’s certainly true of MLS, and the results are in near total agreement.


May I have some hope, please?

Here’s a not-so-fun fact if you’re a Dynamo fan: your team won one — singular — game on the road in 17 tries this season. Not a dark enough outlook? OK, have this: that lone away win came against D.C. United, who finished 21st out of 22 teams if you put MLS into a single table.

Maybe Seattle weren’t so good at home this year… I’m really just searching for anything at this point, you’re thinking. OK, it’s possible, I suppose. They lost once at home all season, to Toronto FC, the best regular-season team in MLS history, by the final score of 1-0, in the month of May.

We’ll see you in Toronto or Columbus for MLS Cup, Seattle Sounders.

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC hold Crew on the road

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The game in 100 words (or less): Without two of its stars, Toronto FC set out to play compact and hold on for a draw on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Michael Bradley recorded 17 recoveries and a trio of interceptions as TFC broke up play and covered the passing lanes, frustrating the Columbus Crew all night. The best chance fell to Harrison Afful late, but TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0.

Three moments that mattered

0′ — The starting lineup — In a game with chances few and far between, the tactical set-up by Greg Vanney – in which his side without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore came out in a 4-1-4-1 formation – proved to be the difference in the game, frustrating the Crew all night.

52′ — Pedro Santos penalty kick no-call — Justin Meram plays a neat pass through the TFC backline that Santos runs on to, and he appears to be taken down in the box by Bono. Referee Robert Sbiga doesn’t blow the whistle and lets play continue, where Ola Kamara takes a shot that’s deflected away. Santos appeals for video review, and receives a yellow card for his efforts.

85′ — Big Save Bono — Gregg Berhalter’s 77th minute substitution to bring on Kekutah Manneh helped to push Afful higher up the field, which led to this late-game chance. Bono, who hadn’t had a whole lot to do, came up with a massive stop to keep the tie level.

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Man of the Match: Alex Bono, Toronto FC

Three things: Being happy with 0-0, and sabotage by Precourt

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On what felt sure to be a seminal night in franchise history, Columbus Crew SC were held by Toronto FC to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. Leg 2 will be played next Wednesday, Nov. 29.

[ RECAP: TFC hold Crew SC to scoreless draw in leg 1 of East finals ]

We learned (roughly) three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


Who’s happiest with 0-0?

There’s a case to be made that both sides will be quite happy with Tuesday’s result — Crew SC for the fact they conceded no away goals, and TFC facing no deficit whatsoever before their home leg — but it’s quite clear that TFC should be the happier of the two, given 1) they were the best regular-season team in MLS history, this season; and, more importantly, 2) Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were suspended for leg 1 (they’ll both be back for leg 2) and Crew SC failed to capitalize anywhere meaningful.

TFC lost once at BMO Field all season, while Columbus managed just four victories away from home. Granted, any draw where both sides score would see Crew SC through to MLS Cup, which they would host no matter the opponent (54 points in the regular season; Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo finished on 54 and 50, respectively).


TFC’s tactical adjustment pays off

For all of the regular season, TFC head coach Greg Vanney deployed a back-three, with great success — 69 points, an all-time regular-season record. Nov. 21, three games from lifting (or losing) MLS Cup, is hardly the ideal time to deviate from the only path you’ve known.

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Alas, the absences of Giovinco and Altidore, TFC’s permanent strike partnership in the 3-5-2, changed everything. Without Altidore’s hold-up play bringing the best player to ever grace the league into attacking moves, the 3-5-2 would have quickly devolved into a 5-3-2, followed in short order by a 5-4-1. Columbus need no invitation to hold north of 60 percent of possession in a given game, which is exactly what would have happened. Not just meaningless possession, either, but camping-inside-TFC’s-defensive-third possession; 50-crosses-into-the-box possession; get-the-center-backs-forward-too possession.

Vanney was proactive with his starting lineup, putting another body in midfield by sacrificing a striker for another man in the middle, and it paid off. At right, you’ll see Crew SC’s attempted passes into/from TFC’s defensive third. Woof.


Anthony Precourt sinks to a new low

How low is Anthony Precourt willing to go in order to sabotage Crew SC, the club he owns and efforts to move to Austin, Tex., without so much as a phony attempt at a non-relocation resolution, and alienate the fans that have supported the franchise since MLS’s debut season in 1996? Tuesday night saw Precourt and Co. up the ante as they intentionally restricted entry (two gates for the entire stadium, causing thousands to miss the game’s opening minutes) into MAPFRE Stadium with the presumed intent of a half-empty venue when the television broadcast kicked off and panned left to right.

You pay good money for a ticket so you can see your team play, which ultimately results in filling the pockets of the villain whose no. 1 goal it is to steal your team, and this is how you’re treated on gameday.

This is shameful stuff from all parties involved — Crew SC, under the leadership and direction of Precourt, and MLS, who have allowed this entire saga to be played out in a public forum and enabling Precourt every step of the way.