AROUND MLS: Atlanta Off To Good Start; Sounders Head North

By Anne M. Peterson, AP Sports Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — After the opening weekend of Major League Soccer, it looks as though Atlanta is doing everything right.
Now all the team needs is a first victory.

It could come Sunday against the league’s other expansion team and another United, Minnesota, at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Atlanta made its highly anticipated debut at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium in the season opener against the New York Red Bulls. The announced crowd was 55,927, which included United’s multiple supporters’ groups: Terminus Legion, Footie Mob, Resurgence and The Faction.

Yamil Asad scored the first goal in team history in the 25th minute to give Atlanta the lead, but the Red Bulls ultimately pulled out the 2-1 victory.
Supporters unfurled a tifo of a golden phoenix in the stands and celebrated the team’s new tradition when Asad hammered a “Golden Spike” to commemorate the first goal. The spike is a nod to the city’s railroad heritage.

“It is a tremendous — yeah, tremendous — thing for the city to have a team here,” Atlanta midfielder Julian Gressel said. “Now, we just have to try to win every game and put it on for the fans. It helps us because they push us through the thick and thin. Now, we get off to a great start now and hope we start winning games.”

Atlanta was already on the right track. The club has sold more than 30,000 season tickets, a record for an expansion team, and open Mercedes Benz Stadium this summer.

Many credit owner Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL’s Falcons, for the successful startup.

“We had been focused on Atlanta for many years, but it didn’t take off until Arthur Blank stepped forward and raised his hand to say, ‘Hey, I want to lead the effort to bring an MLS team to Atlanta,'” Commissioner Don Garber said. “When Arthur Blank speaks, everybody listens, because he’s such a well-respected figure in the business world.”

Garber also credited the supporters for their energy in helping launch the team.

“I love the NFL, and I love the Atlanta Falcons fans. I couldn’t love them more. But soccer fans take it to the next level,” Blank told reporters at the opener. “To see the enthusiasm of our fans and their commitment, their passion for the game and our team, Atlanta United, it just makes my heart feel really good. I know that sounds like a hokey thing, but it’s kinda how I feel.”

GAME OF THE WEEK: While the clash of the expansion teams is notable, probably the biggest game of the week will be north of the border between the MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders at Montreal Impact. Saturday’s game will be played at Montreal’s historic (indoor) Olympic Stadium rather than the team’s own Stade Saputo because of unpredictable March weather. At least 34,000 tickets have already been sold to the match, with both teams looking for their first wins.

Montreal fell 1-0 to San Jose opening weekend, while the Sounders lost to the Houston Dynamo 2-1. Clint Dempsey, who missed the end of last season because of a heart ailment, scored Seattle’s first goal of the season. For the only meeting between the two teams last season, Dempsey scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory in Seattle.

BEST OF THE REST: The buzz is that goalkeeper Tim Howard might return for the Colorado Rapids’ match at the New York Red Bulls on Saturday. Howard, who injured his right adductor longus (groin) during a World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. men’s national team and Mexico, is 16 weeks removed from surgery. But he’s recently been a full participant in practice. … The Portland Timbers, who opened the season with a 5-1 victory over Minnesota at home, head south to face the LA Galaxy on Sunday. The Galaxy fell 2-1 in their opener to Dallas, who will visit Sporting Kansas City on Saturday. It’s worth noting that Children’s Mercy Park, formerly Sporting Park in Kansas City, has dropped — yes, dropped — prices on many concession items this season.

HONORS: Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri was named the MLS Player of the Week after he scored a pair of goals in Portland’s 5-1 victory at home over Minnesota United for the league’s season opener last Friday night. He scored on a header in the 14th minute, then added a penalty kick in the 82nd. He narrowly edged out teammate Fanendo Adi, who also had two goals in the match, for the honor. It was the third time Valeri has won the award since he joined MLS in 2013.

ON THE MOVE: Rumors are swirling — again — about Zlatan Ibrahimovic hopping the pond to play in MLS. Sports Illustrated reported Wednesday that the LA Galaxy had extended an offer to the Manchester United. Ibrahimovic has 26 goals with Man U this season. … In more concrete moves the Vancouver Whitecaps re-signed attacking midfielder Nicolas Mezquida through next season with a club option for 2019. … Former MLS and national team star Landon Donovan has joined the ownership group that is hoping to land an expansion team in San Diego.

LAST WORD: One of the European traditions that MLS clubs have embraced is the tifo, a large display that fans are involved in creating and displaying. Portland and Seattle have battled for tifo supremacy for years. On Friday for the opener, the Timbers paid tribute to the late Bob Ross, the artist who hosted a long-running painting show on PBS and was known for the catchphrase “Happy Little Trees.” The tifo stretched the entire north end of the stadium, home of the Timbers Army supporters’ group.

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