Atlanta United wins MLS Cup in second season, ends city’s sports title drought

If there was a sports championship curse in Atlanta — and with recent events, it may have felt that way — consider it lifted.

Atlanta United, in just their second season, have won the MLS Cup, defeating the Portland Timbers 2-0 in front of 73,019, a record for the league’s title game attendance, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s the first championship for the city since the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995.

Josef Martinez of Valencia, Venezuela, the MLS MVP, scored for Atlanta in the 39th minute. His 35 goals, from the regular season and postseason combined, are an MLS record. Five Stripes fans, as they have all season, responded to his efforts with a throaty roar.

The second goal was by Franco Escobar, who hails from Rosario, Argentina, in the 54th minute off a set piece. It started with a Miguel Almiron free kick, which was headed by Martinez to Escobar for the score.

For a while, it appeared as if the sports teams of Atlanta and Georgia might be jinxed. The Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI to the New England Patriots in Houston. The University of Georgia suffered heartbreak twice this year against the Alabama Crimson Tide in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, squandering leads to lose the College Football Playoff national championship in January and the Southeastern Conference title game last week.

The Hawks haven’t won an NBA championship since moving to Atlanta in 1968. The NHL left the city — twice. And aside from winning their lone title in 1995, the Braves came up short multiple times in the playoffs despite winning a staggering 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005.

While it is well known that professional and college football are popular in the South, it wasn’t immediately apparent that another kind of football — the global one — would resonate as well.

But it has, and more. According to Forbes, Atlanta United is the most valuable team in MLS at $330 million. The fan base spans multiple ages, races and languages. Atlanta United drew 901,033 fans for their 17 home league games, a league record. According to the club, Atlanta United’s season average of 53,002 fans per game — also tops in MLS — ranks 17th the world based on the 2017-18 season, ahead of Italy’s AC Milan.

The Timbers, who upset the top two seeds in the Western Conference to reach this stage, are the second team seeded fifth to reach the MLS Cup, the lowest to reach the championship game. The other team to do it was Houston, when the Dynamo did it in 2012.

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