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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.”

FOLLOW LIVE – ATLUTD host Timbers in MLS Cup 2018

Photo credit: Atlanta United / @ATLUTD
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Atlanta United needed just two years to reach its first MLS Cup upon the league in 2017, and they’ll host Saturday’s final against the Portland Timbers to boot.

[ FOLLOW: Atlanta United vs. Portland Timbers — MLS Cup 2018 ]

It’ll be the final game in which Gerardo “Tata” Martino picks the Five Stripes team and patrols the sidelines at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as he’s set to depart the club at the end of the season (reportedly set to take the Mexican national team job). It could very well be another final outing for one of — or two of — Atlanta’s superstars on the field: Miguel Almiron is expected to move to Europe during the January transfer window, and Josef Martinez has long been linked with a move back across the Atlantic Ocean.

With Martino leaving and two of his South American dynamos perhaps joining him, Saturday could very well signal the end of the first era of Atlanta United, giving way to the next head coach and (presumably) another wave of up-and-coming stars.

[ MORE: Groups for 2019 Women’s World Cup confirmed ]

Portland, on the other hand, is the team that wasn’t “supposed” to be left standing in the Western Conference. Having already knocked off the West’s first- and second-seeded sides in the playoffs — after surviving the knockout round on the road — Giovanni Savarese’s side has proven itself as a formidable, unrelenting foe on the 2018 season’s final day.

Hit the link above to follow along through Saturday’s final, and check back on PST for full coverage and analysis after the game.

LINEUPS

Atlanta: Guzan; Escobar, Parkhurst, Gonzalez-Pirez, Garza; Nagbe, Larentowicz, Remedi; Almiron, Gressel, Martinez | Subs: Clark, Tuiloma, Powell, Olum, Flores, Asprilla, Melano

Portland: Attinella; Valentin, Mabiala, Ridgewell, Villafaña; Chara, Guzman; Polo, Valeri, Blanco; Ebobisse | Subs: Kann, Robinson, McCann, Kratz, Villalba, Barco, Vazquez

Reports say Martino is still Mexico’s man; Did Garber confirm it?

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It’s been no secret that Gerardo “Tata” Martino was probably going to leave Atlanta United after his second season in charge of the bunch.

So reports that he’s taking the Mexico men’s national team job are nothing new, but leave it to — Ives Galarcep’s words not mine — MLS commissioner Don Garber to basically confirm his hire.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings | 3 things ]

Assuming it all comes true, this is going to be the subplot of the USMNT-Mexico rivalry for some time. There’s little doubt Mexican is knee-deep in its golden generation compared to the USMNT, which is just reaching the potential of it with Christian Pulisic, Josh Sargent, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams.

After these quotes, it’s very difficult to believe Mexico’s next coach will anyone but the successful Argentina, Barcelona, and Paraguay boss.

2018 MLS awards: Tata wins Coach, Zlatan wins Goal

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Major League Soccer announced a number of its regular season awards on Tuesday, and a pair of the league’s international stars were at the forefront of the achievements.

Outgoing Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino won Coach of the Year, while LA Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic won the league’s Goal of the Year award for his incredible long-distance strike against rivals LAFC back in late March.

Martino, in his second year in charge as Atlanta United’s first and only manager in franchise history, came just a point from securing the team’s first Supporters’ Shield in just its second year of existence. The club just won its first playoff series in club history as well, beating NYFC over two legs to reach the Eastern Conference finals. The Argentine has announced he will depart the club at the end of the season, with reports pinning him to a job with the Mexican national team.

LAFC manager Bob Bradley finished second in the Coach of the Year award, having led the first-year club to a third-place finish in the Western Conference and a playoff spot before being dumped by Real Salt Lake in the knockout round.

Ibrahimovic won Goal of the Year with his audacious half-volleyed strike from almost 40 yards out that chipped LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller and leveled the score. It was Ibrahimovic’s first MLS goal after moving to the Galaxy in the offseason from Manchester United. He scored again that match, a stoppage-time winner in the brand new derby.

Other awards were handed out during the hour-long awards ceremony on Periscope, including the Save of the Year, which went to Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei for ranging across his net to stop Colorado Rapids forward Shkelzen Gashi.

Skill Play of the Year went to Portland’s Samuel Armenteros for an incredible dink past Colorado defender Danny Wilson just before scoring the game’s first goal. The Celebration of the Year went to Bradley Wright-Phillips for the aftermath of his 100th MLS goal where he proceeded to remove his jersey to reveal another underneath with the number 100.

ATLUTD ‘always knew’ Martino would leave after two years

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Atlanta United has the unenviable task of replacing Gerardo “Tata” Martino come the end of the 2018 season, but it’s one the MLS franchise’s leadership saw coming from a million miles away.

[ MORE: U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn to step down in 2019 ]

Following Tuesday’s announcement that Martino would leave (reportedly to take over the Mexican national team) for his next challenge this winter, United president Darren Eales revealed that ownership and front-office executives entered into their partnership with Martino knowing it was possible — likely, even — that he would only be around for two seasons. Unsurprisingly, it’s a decision Eales and Co., would happily make again and again — transcription from MLSsoccer.com:

“We always knew going into this that it was two years, obviously the hope was that we could persuade him to stay longer and that’s what we were talking over the past two months trying to come to some sort of an agreement on that, but we understand from Tata’s perspective. He wants a new challenge.”

“It was a very amicable and friendly discussion. … It’s not something that there’s any needling doubt about, or financial, it’s none of that. Genuinely, Tata was torn as to what his next move would be.”

Not only has Martino worked miracles on the field for United — sure, they spent tens of millions of dollars on attacking talent the likes of which MLS had never seen before, but it was still an expansion team and with that come various unforeseen hurdles — but he’s established the organization as (arguably) the preeminent destination within MLS, but more importantly, a worthy proving ground for young South American talent looking to raise their stock.

That goes for managers now, too.