Atlanta United's Julian Gressel enjoys his goal against Portland in June. He'll be given another chance to score against the Timbers in Saturday's MLS Championship Game.
Photo: John Adams/Icon Sportswire
Photo: John Adams/Icon Sportswire

Can soccer somehow salve Atlanta’s sporting soul?

Being German-born and German-raised, playing for a local franchise that is but two years old, Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel is nonetheless familiar with this city’s tortured big-game history.

Atlanta’s sporting frustration is that inescapable. No border can contain it. No far-away upbringing can offer immunity from it.  

Yes, that means Gressel understands the civic agita brought on by the numbers 28-3. Even if such a score translates in no way into soccer-ese.  

“I sat in front of the TV when the Pats came back and beat the Falcons in the Super Bowl. We hear all the stories about it,” United’s midfielder, by way of Neustadt an der Aisch, Germany, said.

(Asked if the name Jim Leyritz meant anything to him, Gressel admitted it didn’t. So, blessedly, he has only done his undergrad work on this tangled branch of Georgia history. Should he wish to go on to advanced studies, there is no shortage of tutors). 

Now it is up to United to break the chain of heartbreak Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium when it plays Portland for the MLS Cup. It’s worth noting that the teams’ only other meeting this year, back in June, ended in a 1-1 draw, with Gressel scoring the lone United goal.    

Atlanta has tried on every other kind of sport, both professional and collegiate, and found them to be, in the main, maddening. Having discovered nothing that can reverse what can only be a curse, save for the Braves in 1995, it has come to this:

Only soccer can redeem us now.

Such a once unthinkable notion was made all the more urgent just days ago when Georgia faded against Alabama for the second time in 11 months inside Mercedes-Benz. At least this Saturday, regardless of the outcome, no one will be left wondering why the hometown team didn’t just kick the dang ball.

Maybe it would be better if United’s diverse roster knew absolutely nothing of Atlanta’s angst-ridden past. Then these players could run around completely free of the weight of those past lost leads and muddled coaching decisions that are in no way their doing, but they still must wear like so many millstones.

This team doesn’t really need to go into a difficult game knowing that just because “Atlanta” is on its jersey that every lead is built on quicksand. It shouldn’t have to know that losing on penalty kicks, the match-winner the merest millimeter from Brad Guzan’s reach, is a script that’s already been written.  

To his great credit, rather than distance himself from the ugly past, Gressel eagerly runs at it with lipstick, rouge and J Crew gift card.  

This is the attitude of someone intent upon doing a complete make-over on the Atlanta sporting image:

“I think we came to this town and changed everything a little bit from the sports perspective point,” Gressel said of the two-year-old soccer franchise. “We’ve kind of turned the tide, changed the look of Atlanta sports a little bit and the Atlanta fan bases. So why not change this now?”

And this, too, from the bold Gressel: “We said in the very, very first meeting this year that there’s such a thirst in this city for a trophy. To be able to hopefully deliver that would be incredible. And hopefully (chuckling, now) show other franchises in the city that it’s doable. We aren’t shy about trying to be that one again to win a major trophy.”

Hey, you don’t rewrite history by being timid.

And for the record, Gressel watched the SEC Championship game and thought the Bulldogs still should have made it into the four-team college football playoff. “I thought Georgia got snubbed. I thought it was a great game to watch between two of the best teams in the country,” he said.

You can’t say that the man isn’t doing everything he can to try to make you feel better.

About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for the AJC, mainly for the Sunday section. He covers a range of sports and topics.» If you're not a subscriber, click...
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