Atlanta United fans mob parade route to celebrate city's first title in 23 years

No one was going to rain on Atlanta United's parade.Two days after Atlanta won its first MLS champion...

Posted: Dec 10, 2018 8:03 PM
Updated: Dec 10, 2018 8:03 PM

No one was going to rain on Atlanta United's parade.

Two days after Atlanta won its first MLS championship, its downtown was awash in red, black and gold Monday as trophy-thirsty fans celebrated the juggernaut soccer team and the city's first sports title in 23 years.

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It was 38 degrees with a light drizzle, but that didn't stop thousands of fans of all ages from lining the streets between the Georgia Aquarium and Mercedes Benz Stadium to catch a glimpse of the team.

Police on horseback escorted a giant replica of the MLS Cup down Atlanta's Marietta Street, followed by city dignitaries, team officials, a bus loaded with the championship squad and a flatbed full of fans carrying the team's golden spike, a nod to the city's history as a railroad terminus. Hundreds of other fans on foot sang and carried banners, one of them portraying striker and MLS Cup MVP Josef Martinez as Jesus.

Chants of "Vamos, vamos, vamos, ATL!" erupted as the team bus -- with defender Leandro Gonzalez Pírez front and center atop it -- passed the College Football Hall of Fame and turned toward the CNN Center. Fans, known as the 17s, threw scarves, hats and balls onto the convertible bus. The players signed them and tossed them back to fans in the crowd.

The 17s chanted "Uncle Arthur" as team owner Arthur Blank rode past, sitting on the trunk of a convertible Benz and tossing out miniature soccer balls.

"Congratulations, Mr. Blank!" one fan yelled to The Home Depot co-founder.

"Appreciate that. Thank you," Blank replied.

Several fans told CNN they had skipped work for the soiree in the streets. Lifelong Atlanta resident Stonewall Jackson, 35, and his girlfriend, Aylin Ruth, 39, of Bamberg, Germany, said they had been following the team since Day One.

Ruth got Jackson into soccer, and he reciprocated with an introduction to college football, he said. Ruth took off Monday to enjoy the festivities, while Jackson said he simply skipped work.

"We were such a loser town and you can't really say nothing to someone who supports a different sports team," Jackson said. "This is the greatest city on Earth, though, and I'm just glad we have something to root for again."

That sentiment was on display among many of the revelers. Asked what the championship meant to him, a man named Dion smiled and lifted his hands in the air, saying, "There's no more curse," before disappearing into the throngs before he could give his last name.

Clint Strickland, 32, of Woodstock, brought his bundled-up 4-year-old son, Mason, to the parade. Strickland skipped work, he said, but couldn't convince his wife and daughter to join the celebration.

Asked his favorite team, Mason, a soccer player himself, said, "Atlanta United," and giggled into his mittens. He's a huge fan, his dad said, and he had the fortune of meeting stars Martinez and Miguel Almiron on a plane following the New England Revolution game in May. There's no way they were missing the parade, Strickland said.

"We haven't had a championship in 23 years. I don't know the next time we'll be able to do this," the father said.

A 2017 expansion team, Atlanta won the MLS Cup in only its second year in the league. To get there, Atlanta knocked off the best regular season team in MLS history, the New York Red Bulls, in the Eastern Conference Finals.

On Saturday, going into the game as huge favorites, United beat the Western Conference champion Portland Timbers in relatively comfortable fashion.

Martinez, who with 31 goals shattered the MLS regular season scoring record, was fittingly the first on the scoreboard after a defensive gaffe in the 39th minute allowed him to drift past goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and slot the ball home.

Franco Escobar sealed the deal in the 54th minute when Martinez nodded a free kick to the Argentine right back who poked it past Attinella for a 2-0 lead.

The stadium exploded after the final whistle, with fans dancing amid red confetti, singing Queen's "We Are the Champions" and hurrahing as the players took turns hoisting the MLS Cup.

Before Saturday, the city had not celebrated a sports championship since the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in six games to win the 1995 World Series.

The trophy drought was only exacerbated by the Atlanta Falcons and the University of Georgia Bulldogs, who made it to championship games in recent years only to fall short in excruciating fashion.

The Alabama Crimson Tide beat the Bulldogs in an overtime thriller in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, while the Falcons frittered away a 28-3 lead in 2017's Super Bowl LI to hand the New England Patriots their fifth title. The Atlanta Hawks made it to the NBA's 2015 Eastern Conference Finals but were whipped in four games by LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers.

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