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Five Thoughts: Atlanta United claims MLS Cup with a vengeance

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Atlanta United has brought us a championship

MLS: MLS Cup-Portland Timbers vs Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

This first era of Atlanta United is over. This team had guts.

Atlanta United, wrapping up its second season in history by lifting the club’s first MLS Cup, brings with it a certain finality. Tata Martino is moving on. Miguel Almiron is (probably) moving on. Jeff Larentowicz and/or Michael Parkhurst could also move on, riding into the sunset with silverware. A period of change is set to occur, and with the first chapter now closed, we will start to analyze and reflect on all the characteristics this team inhabited. But let’s start with this one:

This team had balls. Real courage. On the field, it’s encapsulated by the first goal. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez pressuring Portland near the attacking corner flag and Michael Parkhurst also pushing into the attacking third to make a tackle that assisted Josef Martinez’s opener. This team had balls, embracing the expectation placed upon it, refusing to back down to a curse. This team had balls, and it’s the team Atlanta fans have been craving for a long, long time.

Brad Guzan was the unsung hero

With Atlanta holding tight to its 1-0 lead as the seconds ticked down toward halftime, Portland unleashed its most effective attack of the half, culminating in a dangerous cross to the edge of the six-yard box and Portland’s only shot of the half. Brad Guzan was alert and dove to his right to deny Jeremey Ebobisse’s well-struck header, and it was a moment that proved pivotal for Atlanta United. Having dominated much of the first half in terms of possession and the territory the team had claimed on the pitch, the Five Stripes deserved to lead. To have seen that lead slip away just moments after claiming it would’ve been doubly infuriating for Tata Martino.

Atlanta rode its defense to a championship

Going against every narrative surrounding this team, Atlanta United’s defense is what allowed the team to lift MLS Cup Saturday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta kept two of the league’s best playmakers — and Portland’s clear attacking threats in Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco — silent. But it wasn’t just that the team churned out defensive performances in the postseason, it was they way they did it. A variety of ways. In the away legs, they sat deep and absorbed pressure. In the home games, they pushed up the pitch and snuffed out attacks before they started. Saturday night, it was a bit of both. So often when we talk about tactical versatility, we talk about formations and players playing multiple positions. We don’t often talk about being versatile in the way teams manage games. But maybe we should, because Tata Martino’s team proved it could do so masterfully.

Atlanta won MLS Cup and they deserved it

Atlanta winning MLS Cup makes sense when you look at results over the course of the season. True, Atlanta finished second in its conference in the regaular season, but the margins were razor-slim. Atlanta finished as the best road team in modern MLS history, setting records for most road wins and most road points. A handful of clumsy slip-ups throughout the course of the regular season is the only thing that kept the Supporters’ Shield race close. And Atlanta beat the team that finished above it — New York Red Bulls — in the playoffs anyway

But in spite of how much sense it made for Atlanta to be crowned as the kings of MLS in 2018 based on nothing but results, watching Atlanta United and Portland Timbers battle one another on the pitch calcified this notion. These were teams, quite frankly, on two different levels. And Portland didn’t play bad! They executed large portions of their gameplan, largely centered around preventing any central penetration and forcing Atlanta into areas where the percentages were in their favor. But Atlanta was simply too good, too punishing, too precise, too aggressive. The vice slowly squeezed on Portland throughout the first half until the crack emerged, and it generally got worse from there.

What comes next?

A year ago, I sat in the same press conference room I sat in last night. I was there with a somber Tata Martino, fighting back tears as he reflected on his team’s season and how that particular group would never be together again. Such is sports. Personnel is never the same from season to season, but some years you get more drastic changes than others. After all, this year’s team turned out to be quite similar to the inaugural Atlanta United team, only having lost two key pieces in Yamil Asad and Carlos Carmona.

This year will be different. There will be much more change. Tata Martino will bid farewell to Atlanta, a city he did right by. Miguel Almiron likewise. We know we likely have another supremely talented Argentine coming in, Pity Martinez. But aside from that, much of Atlanta United’s future is unknown, and with that comes a certain level of excitement, of danger. Whatever’s in store, for now, we can lay safe knowing that this club is set on solid footing. The best footing.