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Sarah Woodall: One game away from championship, Atlanta United has city's fans believing
Atlanta United
Atlanta United defender Michael Parkhurst, center, kisses the Eastern Conference trophy after the team won the MLS soccer Eastern Conference championship against the New York Red Bulls on Thursday in Harrison, New Jersey. - photo by Julio Cortez | Associated Press

Usually, cheering for an Atlanta sports team is equivalent to willingly consuming E. coli-laced romaine lettuce as you watch the acclaimed film, Titanic. You know the inevitable is coming — that ship is going to sink, Leo is going to die and that BLT you just consumed had already bought you a trip to the emergency room.

Metaphorically speaking, the ship on the screen is your favorite Atlanta franchise and that spoiled sandwich is the winning season you thought would bring satisfaction, but instead leaves you bedridden, dehydrated and sick.

Harsh? Maybe. But it’s true, I’m afraid.

For decades that has been the reality of Atlanta fandom, the epitome of mediocrity. With every fresh season comes a reason for optimism, but always seems to end in disappointment.

It can be argued that the Atlanta Braves have been the exception, but 14-straight division titles and only one World Series can be considered as underachieving. The Falcons, Atlanta’s lone NFL franchise, produced the league’s Most Valuable Player and were minutes away from holding the Lombardi Trophy 2 years ago, though, we all know how that ended.

Yet we all keep coming back. Our undying allegiance to our teams is the hope that, maybe, next year will be the year.

As hard as it’s been for Atlanta, the events to unfold for this city’s newest franchise Thursday night may have given patrons a sign of new beginnings — a winning tradition to come.

Atlanta United FC sealed a 3-1 victory on aggregate against the New York Red Bulls to win the Eastern Conference title on the road, confirming a return to Atlanta for the chance at the ultimate prize. As the many players huddled on-stage in jubilation during the postgame trophy presentation, confetti rained down on them as they hoisted the club’s very first conference title cup. 

And they’re not done yet.

When the Five Stripes take the field inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 8 to host the MLS Cup final, it will be an opportunity for the club to become the first major sports franchise since the 1995 Braves to win a championship, thus ending a long stigma of heartbreak and blown chances. 

This young franchise has shown time and time again that they have the moxie to snap this horrid curse once and for all. 

This season, the farewell tour of beloved team manager Tata Martino so far has looked promising, and against the league’s best defensive club in the New York Red Bulls, Atlanta showed its true potential. Entering the first leg of the Eastern Conference final, the Supporter’s Shield winning Red Bulls had conceded just 32 goals in 34 games played — the fewest in the MLS. Last Sunday night, New York’s press had no answers for the Five Stripes’ unrelenting attack as Josef Martinez (Golden Boot winner), Franco Escobar and substitute midfielder Tito Villalba found the back of the net in a dominant 3-0 victory at home.

Atlanta’s second goal off the counter attack was a beautiful sequence and a wonderful display of team soccer. Miguel Almiron threaded a perfect through ball to fellow midfielder Julian Gressel, who redirected a cross past a decoy Martinez and found Escobar, who slotted his shot in the upper net for a 2-0 lead in the 71st minute. 

Villalba’s dagger strike in the fifth minute of stoppage time was taken with such conviction as the ball rolled off his cleat and curled just inside the post. In that instance, it put New York in a hole too deep to climb out of for Leg 2.

On top of that, VAR — a system rarely in favor of Atlanta during the regular season — waved off two pivotal New York goals in the series, something that showed the momentum was clearly on the side of United.

Despite falling short in the Supporter’s Shield race in the regular season, the Five Stripes are playing arguably their best soccer at the most ideal time. It could feel too good to be true, but don’t believe it. Atlanta United is showing an ability to adapt while exhibiting a fearless, dominant brand of soccer that has produced two clean sheets and postseason goals from five different players.

On Thursday, their tactics of playing smart against a desperate New York Club paid off, as Atlanta’s defense held the Red Bulls scoreless until the fourth minute of stoppage time. Tim Parker’s last-ditch, punch-in goal for the Red Bulls came right in front of goal, but victory was already ensured for the visitors, still with a two-goal advantage on aggregate.  

And as the final minutes ticked away during the final stretch of regulation and stoppage time Thursday, the chants and drum beats of the many Atlanta fans to make the trip that filled the emptying Red Bull Arena. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, the uncontested man of the match and seemingly everywhere along Atlanta’s back line throughout the match, hopped and waved his arms from side-to-side to entice more chants from the supporting crowd in the upper deck. 

That’s what has been behind them every step of the way, a world-class fanbase that continues to feed the players with such a passion and enthusiasm for the game. Last Sunday’s unveiling of the 70,000-person tifo to blanket the stands of Mercedes-Benz Stadium clearly set the tone for an Atlanta-dominated showing.

Fans on their feet, waving their shining sheets of gold, red and black in unison captivated the players -- Miguel Almiron even smiling in wonderment on the field pregame — and the world on social media. The echoing chants from the supporter’s section and the crowd of 70,016 — astonishingly less than the 70,526 which set a MLS postseason record for attendance on Nov. 11 — made the ESPN broadcast all the more entertaining.

Anticipate yet another sellout crowd at the The Benz next Saturday when Atlanta takes on the Portland Timbers, which defeated Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference final. So get excited, Atlanta. Mark your calendars. This could very-well be the turning point — seriously!

Sarah Woodall is sports reporter for The Times. She can be reached at or @Woodall8Sarah on Twitter.

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