By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) — Finally, Atlanta has another team it can call champions.
Josef Martinez and Franco Escobar scored goals, Brad Guzan came up with a couple of clutch saves and Atlanta United gave the city its first title since 1995 with a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final Saturday night.
Cheered on by the largest crowd in franchise history, United captured the crown in just its second season to set off a huge celebration in a city that has known so much sporting heartbreak. Owner Arthur Blank got to lift the trophy, just under two years after his other team, the NFL’s Falcons, squandered a 25-point lead in an epic Super Bowl collapse.
Martinez, capping the greatest goal-scoring season in MLS history, put United ahead in 39th minute. Escobar added an insurance goal in the 54th, turning the final minutes into a raucous, flag-waving celebration and sending coach Tata Martino out with a title in his final game as coach. He’s reportedly headed to Mexico to take over as that country’s national coach.
Atlanta reveled in its first title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series — a gap of 8,442 days, for those counting.
After a surprising run in the playoffs, the Timbers were denied their second MLS championship after winning the cup in 2015.
Since major league sports came to Atlanta in 1966, the only other team to win a championship in one of the five major sports also came on the soccer pitch. The Atlanta Chiefs claimed the title in the North American Soccer League’s inaugural season in 1968.
While that team laid the groundwork, Atlanta United carried the sport to unprecedented levels in North America. The team shattered the MLS attendance record a year ago in its first season, and then took the mark even higher by averaging more than 53,000 per game this year — a level of support that would fit right in with the Premier League or La Liga.
Almost as soon as the final whistle blew, a victory parade through the streets of Atlanta was announced for Monday.
Queen’s “We Are The Champions” blared throughout Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
United kept the ball in Portland’s end of the field much of the first half.
Finally, the home team broke through. Naturally, it was Martinez putting the ball in the net .
Portland tries to clear the ball, but a sliding tackle by United defender Michael Parkhurst sent the ball rocketing back toward the Timbers net. Martinez managed to win possession from Jeremy Ebobisse at the top of the area, leaving the most prolific goal scorer in league history all alone against goalkeeper Jeff Attinella.
It was no contest. Martinez, the league’s MVP and Golden Boot winner, cut to his right to escape the sprawling keeper, easily sliding the ball into an open net to send the crowd of 73,019 into a uproar.
The Timbers finally created a scoring chance in the 42nd minute.
Looking to atone for his mistake, Ebobisse slipped in behind the defense and was all alone in front for a cross. His header was right on the mark, but Guzan dove to his right to punch it away with both hands.
It was Portland’s only shot of the opening half.
The Timbers created far more scoring chances over the final 45 minutes, but couldn’t get it past Guzan.
It was Escobar who finished off the Timbers. Miguel Almiron sent a free kick into the box, where Martinez managed to get a head on it. His attempt was going wide of the net, but Franco Escobar slipped in at the far post to deliver a sliding goal.
It was Escobar’s second goal of the playoffs, double his scoring output for the entire regular season.