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Atlanta’s MLS Cup celebration is joyous, but short-lived

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ATLANTA (AP) Despite cold, drizzly weather, thousands of fans turned out Monday for a downtown parade and rally to celebrate the city’s first championship since 1995.

The revelry won’t last long.

Atlanta United must find a coach to replace Tata Martino and likely cope with the loss of star midfielder Miguel Almiron before returning to the field in February for their first appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League.

“That puzzle exists every year in professional sports,” team owner Arthur Blank told reporters after the rally outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “The great organizations, the great teams find a way to respond to that. What we’ve built here is a sustainable, winning organization, so we’re looking forward to being back – not just competing, but being back on this stage a year from now.”

In just its second season since entering Major League Soccer as an expansion team, Atlanta United won the championship with a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers on Saturday night.

Less than 48 hours later, the city toasted its first championship team since the Atlanta Braves won the 1995 World Series .

“We did it! We broke the curse!” said rapper Archie Eversole, whose song “We Ready” became a popular theme at home games.

The players rode a double-decker bus on the 1-mile-long parade route, holding up the cup for the cheering crowd as they passed the Georgia Aquarium, College Football Hall of Fame and Centennial Olympic Park. Blank, team president Darren Eales and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms revved up fans in convertibles at the front of the procession.

The parade ended in a grassy lot alongside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where some 15,000 turned out for a lunchtime rally also attended by outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal.

“We’ve won a championship in only our second season,” Eales said. “That’s pretty incredible.”

In probably his last appearance with the team, Martino hammered in the golden spike while the crowd roared. The Argentine coach is reportedly headed to Mexico to become that country’s national team coach.

“Coach Martino is one of the great coaches in the world,” Blank said. “He saw the vision, he bought into the vision, and he executed the vision with this incredible group of players.”

That group will be changing.

Atlanta already made several moves, announcing the day after the game that it declined contract options on five players including captain Michael Parkhurst, though the 34-year-old defender is expected to return in 2019. The team said it has already begun negotiations on a new contract with Parkhurst, who finally won the MLS Cup after playing on four runner-up teams.

The biggest moves are still to come. Almiron, who was runner-up in the MVP voting to teammate Josef Martinez, is expected to follow through on his desired move to Europe, which should bring United a hefty transfer fee.

The team seems to have already lined up a replacement.

Argentine star Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, who scored the clinching goal in River Plate’s victory Sunday in the Copa Libertadores final, announced on the field right after the game that he’s leaving the team. He told media in his native country that he’s headed to Atlanta United.

Martinez, who scored a record 31 goals during the regular season and added four more in the playoffs , appears likely to remain with the team for at least one more season. He’s had much more success in MLS than his previous stint in Italy’s Serie A.

“I am going to be here as long as they want me,” Martinez said after winning the MVP award. “I feel like I’m at home.”

Atlanta United could target another South American coach as Martino’s replacement, with an eye toward maintaining a pipeline to promising young players from that continent. As Almiron has shown, the MLS can provide a useful steppingstone to those wishing to further their careers in Europe.

Among those mentioned as candidates: Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who previously won the MLS Cup as a player in Columbus and coached Boca Juniors to the Copa Libertadores final this season; along with Marcelo Bielsa, who has close ties to Martino and is currently managing Leeds in England’s second division.

Atlanta United will have an additional priority in 2019 after qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League, the continent’s top club competition. They will face Herediano in the two-legged opening round, with the first game to be played in Costa Rica in a Feb. 19-21 window before the second leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium a week later.

That 16-team competition, which runs through the first of May, figures to be the team’s top priority in the early part of the 2019 season. The only U.S. team to win the title was D.C. United two decades ago.

But Atlanta is intent on defending its MLS championship, as well.

“It’s an honor to represent this city,” said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, saluting the fans who broke numerous attendance records during the club’s first two seasons. “We’ll be back next year to defend this cup.”

USWNT’s 28-game run snapped in hammering by France

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Kadidiatou Diani scored twice and France ended the U.S. national team’s 28-game unbeaten streak with a 3-1 victory Saturday in Le Havre, France.

The top-ranked United States had not lost since falling 1-0 to Australia in 2017, The Americans were 25-0-3 over the span.

Marie-Antoinette Katoto also scored for third-ranked France. It has won eight straight matches.

It was the first of 10 matches the United States will play before the World Cup. The Americans are the defending champions and could meet France again in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

France went up in the ninth minute on Diani’s goal off a cross from Delphine Cascarino. Diani scored again in the 57th minute to make it 2-0. The 23-year old plays for Paris Saint-Germain.

Katoto, Diani’s PSG teammate, added a goal in the 78th minute.

Mallory Pugh scored for the United States in the final moments.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis had to tinker with her starting lineup and rested stars Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Julie Ertz as a precaution because of minor injuries. Also held out was Kelley O’Hara, still recovering from ankle surgery.

Defender Tierna Davidson came in for Emily Fox in the 53rd minute, marking her first appearance since she fractured her left ankle in a match for Stanford in September.

Davidson decided to leave the Cardinal with a year of eligibility remaining to focus on making the World Cup team. She was the first overall pick in last week’s National Women’s Soccer League draft by the Chicago Red Stars.

The match at La Stade Oceane was sold out with over 25,000 in attendance. The stadium is one of the nine venues that will host World Cup games. The Americans’ next visit to the stadium will be for the final match of the World Cup group stage against Sweden.

“I’m not worried,” Ellis said following the loss. “We know who we are and what we can do.”

Next up for the United States is a match against Spain on Tuesday at Estadio Joss Rico Perez in Alicante. The U.S. women trained in Portugal ahead of the two-match European trip.

Serie A: Roma climb into 4th; anti-racism showing at Inter

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: What we learned in the Premier League, Week 23 ]

Roma 3-2 Torino

Nicolo Zaniolo announced himself as one of Europe’s most promising young talents, with the opening goal in Roma’s 3-2 victory over Torino, a game in which the 19-year-old was the best, most dangerous attacker for the whole of 90 minutes.

Zaniolo was initially denied by Salvatore Sirigu, but the young Italian managed to collect the rebound and put it home on the rebound, all while on the ground. Aleksandar Kolarov made it 2-0 not long after the half-hour mark, and Roma appeared to be on their merry way to a third straight victory.

The score was 2-2 by the 67th minute, thanks to Tomas Rincon and Cristian Asnaldo. Stephan El Shaarawy had other ideas, though, as he slammed home the winner, courtesy of a perfect through ball from Lorenzo Pellegrini, in the 73rd.

Now fully recovered from a disastrous start to the season (just five wins from their first 15 games), Roma sit fourth in the table, a point ahead of capital rivals Lazio.

Inter Milan 0-0 Sassuolo

Elsewhere in the top-four, third-place Inter Milan were held to a scoreless draw by 12th-place Sassuolo, but the game’s real story took place in the stands.

With Inter serving the second of its two-game ban on fans being allowed inside the San Siro due to racist chants, more than 10,000 local children were invited to attend as part of an initiative against discrimination. Brothers Universally United hung anti-discrimination signs around the stadium and the players word “BUU No to discrimination” on their shirt sleeves.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Udinese 1-2 Parma

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Frosinone v. Atalanta — 6:30 a.m. ET
Fiorentina v. Sampdoria — 9 a.m. ET
SPAL v. Bologna — 9 a.m. ET
Cagliari v. Empoli — 12 p.m. ET
Napoli v. Lazio — 2:30 p.m. ET

La Liga: Atleti cut into Barcelona’s lead; Real Madrid move into 3rd

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: What we learned in the Premier League, Week 23 ]

Huesca 0-3 Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid cut Barcelona’s lead in the title race to two points with a resounding victory away to 20th-place Huesca. Barcelona will host 15th-place Leganes on Sunday.

Lucas Hernandez opened the scoring in the 31st minute, and while his finish inside a heavy fog would ultimately be enough for Diego Simeone’s side, Santiago Arias (52nd) and Koke (71st) tacked on insurance goals in the second half.

Real Madrid 2-0 Sevilla

In a battle of two sides level on points in a battle for third place, Real Madrid turned in one of their better performances on the season en route to a 2-0 victory over Sevilla.

Sure, Los Blancos didn’t break the scoreless deadlock until Casemiro unleashed his long-range blast in the 78th minute — thus the result was in doubt for much of the game — but Madrid were in complete control despite the goal coming late on. Sevilla managed just four shots over 90 minutes and held just 31 percent of possession.

Even still, the score remained tight at 1-0 until stoppage time, when Luka Modric 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric put the game to bed.

Now in sole possession of third place — three points clear of Sevilla, but still seven back of Barcelona — Santiago Solari’s side appears to have righted the ship enough that they’ll cruise to a top-four finish.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Celta Vigo 1-2 Valencia

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Real Betis v. Girona — 6 a.m. ET
Villarreal v. Athletic Bilbao — 10:15 a.m. ET
Rayo Vallecano v. Real Sociedad — 12:30 p.m. ET
Levante v. Real Valladolid — 12:30 p.m. ET
Barcelona v. Leganes — 2:45 p.m. ET

USMNT youngster joins NYCFC on loan from Benfica

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NEW YORK (AP) U.S. national player Keaton Parks has been acquired by New York City FC on loan from the Portuguese club Benfica for the 2019 season.

The 21-year-old Texan is a versatile central midfielder. He joined Varzim of Portugal in 2015 when he turned 18 and then signed with Benfica in 2017.

He made his national team debut in May, entering in the 62nd minute of a 3-0 victory over Bolivia in Philadelphia.

New York sporting director Claudio Reyna said Saturday that Parks “comes to us highly motivated” and can “make a strong impact” in midfield.