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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!

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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.”

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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.

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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

Mohamed Salah starts for Egypt despite int’l retirement talks

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Mohamed Salah is coming off of his best season as a professional, but reports suggest that his time with the Egyptian national team could soon be coming to an end for reasons that extend beyond soccer.

Salah will however be included in Egypt’s Group A finale against Saudi Arabia on Monday, though, after the team sheet was revealed by the Pharaohs ahead of the match.

CNN reported over the weekend that Salah believes he is being used by Egypt as a political symbol to represent Chechnya, which has sparked talks of the talented Liverpool winger ending his international career.

Egypt has already been eliminated from reaching the Round of 16 after losing its first two matches at the World Cup.

The tides have turned significantly for Toronto FC

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2017 gave Toronto FC its first MLS Cup, as well as significant notoriety for the club’s historic season, but Greg Vanney and his side are in a world of trouble in 2018 for reasons that are still unfathomable.

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A deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League (which ended in heartbeat at the hands of Chivas) and a number of injuries have plagued Toronto this season, and for that, the defending champions find themselves in unchartered MLS waters.

Over the course of Major League Soccer’s 22 previous seasons, only three defending champions have gone on to miss the playoffs the next year (D.C. United in 2000, LA Galaxy in 2006 & Portland Timbers in 2016).

So, how poor has TFC been through nearly half the season?

The Canadian side has acquired 15 points in as many matches, which puts the club on pace to finish with 34 points in 2018.

That total would leave TFC well below the average points needed for a club to get into the playoffs. It varies on a year-to-year basis, but teams typically need somewhere in the range of 45 to 50 points to finish above the red line in their respective conferences.

Last season, three teams in MLS finished with less than 34 points (D.C. United, LA Galaxy & Colorado Rapids), and none of the clubs finished within striking distance of the postseason.

While Toronto wouldn’t be the first team to show signs of struggles in the first half of the season and then proceed to turn things around over the second portion, there are definite concerns for Vanney and Co.

In 2018, the Reds haven’t earned back-to-back victories in MLS play, leaving the club in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

The talent within the squad remains there, and if TFC gets the rest of its squad healthy there could be a run made by the team, but as things stand, the club’s historic run a season ago looks to be crumbling in 2018.

Gressel ties it in Atlanta United’s 1-1 draw with Timbers

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ATLANTA (AP) Julian Gressel tied it in the 56th minute and Atlanta United held on for a 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers on Sunday.

A loose ball deflection off defender Larrys Mabiala bounced into Gressel’s path and he pounced on it with a right-footed volley. Atlanta (10-3-4) stayed atop the MLS standings and extended its unbeaten streak to five games.

Mabiala opened the scoring in the 32nd minute. Samuel Armenteros was the first to get a touch with a left-footed stab on Diego Valeri’s free kick. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan blocked it out, but Mabiala headed home the rebound and Portland took the early lead.

The Timbers (6-3-5) extended their unbeaten run to nine.

MLS: NYCFC beat TFC in new coach Torrent’s debut

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jo Inge Berget scored twice and coach Domenec Torrent celebrated his New York City FC debut with a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on Sunday.

Berget made it 2-1 in the 68th minute, following Maximiliano Moralez’s direct pass up the right channel and slotting it home.

NYCFC (9-3-4) tied it at 1 in the 51st minute on Berget’s back heel from the top of the 6-yard box.

Víctor Vazquez opened the scoring for Toronto (4-8-3) in the 37th minute. Vasquez outran his defender on Auro’s long ball up the right side and sent a chip shot over the onrushing goalkeeper.

NYCFC’s David Villa left the game in the 28th minute with a non-contact injury.

Torrent replaced Patrick Vieira in New York shortly after Vieira’s departure for OGC Nice was officially confirmed. Torrent had been the right-hand man to Pep Guardiola for the last 11 years, most recently at Manchester City.