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Champions! Atlanta United win MLS Cup in second season

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Atlanta United didn’t need all that long to earn the right to call themselves the champions of MLS, realizing the two-year-long dream of Arthur Blank and Gerardo “Tata” Martino with a 2-0 victory in the 2018 MLS Cup final on Saturday.

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2018 MLS MVP — and single-season goals king (31) — Josef Martinez put his prints everywhere as the Venezuelan bagged a goal and an assist in front of an MLS-record crowd of 73,019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Atlanta enjoyed plenty of possession — more than 56 percent in the first half — but the Timbers midfield and defense did an admirable job to funnel everything from Atlanta out wide once in the final third. From there, Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala could comfortably head cross after cross away from danger.

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All of the pressing, harrying and chasing finally paid off for Atlanta in the 39th minute, when center back Michael Parkhurst pushed higher and higher up the field and tackled the ball away from Jeremy Ebobisse. Martinez was lurking atop the penalty area — narrowly onside — and knew exactly what to do with the ball when it fell to him.

Brad Guzan was called into action for the first time not long after Martinez’s goal, diving to his right to deny a goal-bound header from Ebobisse.

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Atlanta doubled their lead in the 54th minute, courtesy of a cool finish from Franco Escobar at the back post. Miguel Almiron floated his free kick into the box and Martinez flicked it as the first red shirt in the box. Jorge Villafaña was a full yard behind everyone else in white, keeping Escobar onside, but there was still plenty to be done from there.

After just two seasons in MLS, Martino, who coached his final game in Atlanta on Saturday, has secured his place as one of the league’s great influencers — both in terms of the global interest and respect he commanded, and the tactical daredevil mindset he displayed.

The entire organization in Atlanta has raised the bar in MLS — both in terms of on-field product and the numerous financial investments made by the organization — making Saturday’s finale a thoroughly fitting result.

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.

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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

Garber wants MLS to become more of ‘selling league’

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ATLANTA (AP) The commissioner of Major League Soccer wants his teams to get in the selling business.

In his annual state of the league address leading up to the MLS Cup final, Don Garber said the transfer deals that sent teenagers Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams to the German Bundesliga should be a model for all clubs.

“We need to become more of a selling league,” Garber said Friday at a downtown Atlanta hotel. “We’ve been buying for so long. But as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify the investment we’ve made in players and the investment we’ve made in domestic development. We have to have something that turns the model around or it’s going to be unsustainable.”

Davies, an 18-year-old Canadian who played this season for the Vancouver Whitecaps, is joining Bayern Munich as part of an MLS record $22 million transfer. Nineteen-year-old midfielder Tyler Adams of the New York Red Bulls also is moving to the Bundesliga, moving to sister club RB with Leipzig under a five-year arrangement.

Garber noted that Atlanta United, which is hosting the title game against the Portland Timbers , could be exploring transfer deals for stars such as league MVP Josef Almiron and Miguel Almiron.

“In world soccer, players get sold,” the commissioner said. “If something happens in Atlanta, I’m sure they will do whatever they can to have higher attendance and even more popularity next year, even if they sell one of their stars.”

Garber also signaled a new playoff format next season. A likely change is from two-legged series in the conference semifinals and finals to a total knockout format hosted by teams with the better record. That probably would move the MLS Cup back to November for the first time since 2011.

“We want to make the regular season more and more important, where winning in March is as important as winning in September and October,” he said. “The system we’re looking at will place a very, very high emphasis on the regular season.”

Atlanta United has shattered most MLS attendance records during its first two years, averaging more than 53,000 per game this season. Another mark is expected to fall Saturday night with a projected crowd of 73,000 for the championship match.

Garber said Atlanta and the Seattle Sounders, both of which share large stadiums with NFL teams, have given the league reason to look beyond its normal model of wanting teams with soccer-only stadiums that seat around 20,000.

The Sounders averaged more than 40,000 per game in 2018. No other team reached 27,000, and only a handful even had the capacity to reach that level.

“Every now and then, you have something that shocks you,” Garber said. “What happened in Seattle (which entered the league in 2009) was the first example of that. What happened here in Atlanta continues to astound me. We’re more open to thinking about it. We have two examples of success with large stadiums. But the model is still focused on smaller stadiums.”

Garber said a key to Atlanta’s success was making United feel like a joint partner with the NFL’s Falcons in $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a retractable-roof facility that opened last year.

Each team has its own locker room with all the bells and whistles. The stands were designed to accommodate both a football field and the wider soccer pitch. The football lines are removed from the artificial turf for all United games.

“Arthur Blank and his organization have embraced this team and put it on par with the way his family looks at the football team,” Garber said of United’s owner. “When I walked into the stadium, I saw a giant painting of a United player right next to a giant painting of a Falcons player. They’ve managed to find ways to share the building, rather than make United a tenant in the building. That’s something to look at moving forward.”

The league will grow to 24 teams next season with the addition of an expansion franchise in Cincinnati , while Nashville, Tennessee, and Miami are scheduled to come aboard in 2020.

The Miami club, led by David Beckham , has endured a tortuous search to find a site for a new stadium, but Garber said approval last month from the city’s voters on a proposed development adjacent to Miami International Airport is a major step toward finally getting the long-planned franchise to the playing field.

MLS is also planning a 27th franchise in Austin, Texas, which was initially set to be the new home of the Columbus Crew. MLS is working to finalize a deal with the Haslem family, which owns the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, that would keep a team in Ohio’s capital city and lead to a new downtown stadium .

Garber said MLS is likely to grant a 28th franchise in the next year. St. Louis, Phoenix, Detroit and Sacramento, California, are among the contenders.

Whoever is left out in this round of expansion may not have to wait long for another shot at a franchise. Garber said he expects the owners to begin discussing the feasibility of taking the league beyond a 28-team alignment at a board meeting next week.

“I don’t anticipate an announcement coming out of that,” the commissioner said. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that we can support more than 28 teams in Major League Soccer.”

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

For more AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Report: Bayern Munich to buy American teen from FC Dallas

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FC Dallas teen Chris Richards’ loan to Bayern Munich is going very well.

The 18-year-old American center back has impressed the Bundesliga giants and is set for a $1.25 million move overseas, according to Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep.

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Richards has made 19 appearances in the Bayern system, including five in the UEFA Youth League, and has two goals and an assist.

The Alabama-born Homegrown defender would be the second FC Dallas prospect to move abroad, joining Weston McKennie.

MLS Cup Final preview: Timbers prepared to strike

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Things are going to get real loud in Georgia by the time 8 p.m. ET rolls around on Saturday night.

That’s when Atlanta United tangles with Portland Timbers, the Georgian outfit a heavy favorite to win its first MLS Cup and send Tata Martino, Miguel Almiron, and probably a few others away from United as all-time heroes (though they already qualify given their star power and the new nature of the club).

[ MORE: PST chats with Zack Steffen ]

Standing in their way? One of the most storied clubs in modern American soccer, guided by a first-time MLS manager whose outfoxed plenty of coaches in his day. Giovanni Savarese may not carry the name accolades of Martino’s but the job he’s done in Portland has surprised many and he deserves to have a shot of winning MLS Cup.

And lest we forget that Martino has been out-foxed in finals before: The 2013 Copa del Rey final and three Copa America finals, with the Spanish Super Cup for Barcelona against Atletico Madrid standing as his big final victory. The Copa America finals were Argentina twice losing to Chile in PKs, and with Paraguay blown out by highly-favored Uruguay; The Copa del Rey was Barca’s late loss to Real Madrid in Valencia.

Savarese has won three NASL titles with the New York Cosmos, who were admittedly the favorites each time. And his Timbers have won an MLS Cup away from home, claiming the 2015 final against Columbus with several players still in green and white on the roster (Diego Valeri, Jorge Villafana, Diego Chara, Lucas Melano, Jake Gleeson).

So, yes, Atlanta is the favorite to win, but don’t sleep on Portland in a one-off game with plenty of rest and time to prepare for a tactical challenge.


Regular season

Portland – 15W-10L-9T – +6 GD – 4W-8L-5T away

Atlanta – 21W-7L-6T – +26 GD – 11W-2L-4T home


Head-to-head

June 24 — D 1-1 in Atlanta — Goals: Mabiala (32′), Gressel (56′)


Playoffs

Atlanta
Beat NYCFC 4-1 (1-0, 3-1)
Beat RBNY 3-1 (3-0, 0-1)

Portland
Beat Dallas 2-1
Beat Seattle 4-4 (2-1, 2-3)
Beat Sporting KC 3-2 (0-0, 3-2)