Atlanta United have built a brand on pushing boundaries in Major League Soccer. On Wednesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the club reinforced that notion by not just beating Club America 3-2 in the Campeones Cup final, but by outplaying the Mexican champions.
“This was a man's game,” said Frank de Boer in his post-match press conference. “I'm very proud of what [we] showed today, because it was a difficult game. But if you see where we were at the beginning [of the season] and where we are right now, then we can say we made a major step forward. It's good for MLS and especially good for Atlanta United that we can compete against this kind of team.”
The match was electric right away and it didn’t take long before Emerson Hyndman, the club’s summer signing, put the home team ahead in the 5th minute.
While Club America drew level less than 10 minutes later and even took the lead briefly in the second half, Atlanta dominated for long stretches of the game, besting the Liga MX title-holders in shots, shots on target, possession and duels won.
“The way we competed tonight shows that we can compete with teams in Mexico, here and around the continent,” said Hyndman. “It was a great team performance today and it showed a lot in how far we've come.”
The game was unlike a typical final, which often lend themselves to being cagey, boring affairs. It sure helped that there were thousands of Club America fans packing out their sections and dispersed throughout the venue, contributing both noise and passion.
“Plain and simple: It was fun. It was a fun night,” said Jeff Larentowicz, who provided a long-range blast to level the game at 2-2 in the 59th minute. “It was an exciting night. For the neutrals, it was probably extremely exciting. For the fans on both sides, it was exciting. From the anthems to the end of the game, it kind of had that feeling of spectacle, for sure.”
Larentowicz captained Atlanta after Michael Parkhurst and Brad Guzan, two players who typically wear the armband for de Boer, were left on the bench. The skipper ended the night by lifting a trophy that, while just in its second year, represents a new beginning.
For Larentowicz, it also brings back memories.
“You hope to have a long career. You hope to be in a league that trying to grow and help it grow,” said Larentowicz. “I remember being in a season-ticket holder event for the [New England] Revolution, and people saying, ‘Do you think the U.S. will win a World Cup?’
“It's kind of a similar thing. It's basically, ‘Do you think the game will grow big enough to where we're leading?’ I think we're getting there, for sure. I don't think we're all the way there, but tonight's a good step.