Parkhurst captains Atlanta United to title, ending MLS Cup drought

Michael Parkhurst admitted to allowing himself to dream about the moment that had eluded him for the better part of 13 years. Dreams of one day lifting an MLS Cup stayed in his mind, even after loss after loss. The fourth of those losses, suffered three years ago, crushed him, mainly because of the fear that another chance to win a title might not come.

That fifth opportunity came on Saturday, and Parkhurst made the most of it, shaking off an ankle injury and turning in a standout performance to help Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers and lift an MLS Cup title in just the club’s second year of existence.

After letting Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank be the first to lift the big silver trophy, Parkhurst grabbed it and joined his teammates on stage at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and lifted the trophy aloft, a moment that also helped lift the burden of those previous championship losses off his shoulders.

“It was everything I dreamed about and more,” Parkhurst told Goal of the moment he lifted the trophy. “I can’t wait to relive it, see the pictures and party with these guys tonight. It was special.”

Parkhurst came into Saturday’s final one of four MLS players to ever lose four MLS Cup finals without ever winning one, and he went into Saturday determined to change that. He gave his pre-game captain’s speech to the team, and didn’t mention his past finals defeats. He didn’t need to.

“I told them to control the emotions, go out there and play your best game under the biggest lights,” Parkhurst said. “Step up like we have all season and go win a trophy for the city.”

Parkhurst did his part, leading the Atlanta United defense to its third shutout in five matches during the playoffs, and making a key play to help start the sequence leading to Atlanta United’s opening goal, which set the tone for Saturday’s victory.

Michael Parkhurst, Diego Valeri

Nobody was happier for Parkhurst than central defense partner and long-time teammate Jeff Larentowicz, who was Parkhurst’s collaborator on the New England Revolution team that lost three straight MLS Cup titles from 2005 to 2007. Larentowicz ended his own MLS Cup drought by helping the Colorado Rapids win the title in 2010, but on Saturday he played alongside Parkhurst on the way to a shutout victory 13 years after they endured their first loss.

“He deserves it. He’s a champion in this league. No one can take that from him now. I’m so happy for him,” Jeff Larentowicz told Goal. “He had an ankle injury. He’s a guy that had trouble coming into the game. Nothing was going to stop him from playing. He’s our leader, our captain, and he had a really good night. He put it all together tonight and he deserved it.”

The most unfair aspect of Parkhurst’s legacy in cup finals before Saturday was what went often overlooked, the fact that Parkhurst actually played well in all of his past cup final appearances. He was never directly involved in allowing any of the goals his teams gave up, but that didn’t make the losses any easier for him to take.

“Each one I think you take a little harder than the rest,” Parkhurst said, admitting that the loss he suffered with the Columbus Crew in 2015 devastated him. “That one was tough because we were at home, it was an opportunity lost. It was crushing. You never know if you’re going to get a next one, but everything happens for a reason.

“I thought I’d play my career in Columbus, but I got shipped to Atlanta, thankfully,” Parkhurst told Goal. “Getting another opportunity to close the deal was special, and tonight was everything I ever imagined winning MLS Cup would be.”

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Why the hell would Real Madrid want Jose Mourinho back at the Bernabeu?

Jose Mourinho fell out with a lot of people while in charge of Real Madrid, but president Florentino Perez was not one of them.

By the time the Portuguese left the Santiago Bernabeu in 2013, his relationship with key players in the dressing room was in tatters.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Iker Casillas, Pepe and Sergio Ramos had fallen out with the coach, who believed they were scheming against him.

But president Perez believed in Mourinho and even though he left by mutual consent, the Madrid chief would have liked him to stay beyond his third year.

And every time he has appointed a manager since, Mourinho has not been far from his mind. Perez has never hidden his desire to bring back the current Manchester United manager.

Of the dressing room heavyweights he upset, only Ramos remains, one stopping block against recent stories that Madrid are considering hiring Mourinho again in the summer.

Although Santiago Solari was handed a three-year contract in November there is talk that Madrid will let the Argentine see the season through and then find a proper replacement in the summer – Mourinho.

Given his tenure in the Spanish capital ended in acrimony, it may seem surprising to some that Mourinho may resurface, especially after a largely disappointing spell in charge of Manchester United, where it appears he is losing another dressing room.

Jose Mourinho Manchester United 2018-19

No longer is he the uniting force behind the scenes that creates an ‘us against the world’ struggle which his players respond to. Now Mourinho just seems to battle directly with them, an approach which unsurprisingly has borne little fruit.

Mourinho is no longer successful, no longer admired, no longer the quietly confident and cheekily arrogant coach that impressed at Porto, Chelsea and Inter. 

Why would Madrid want him back? Perez is his main advocate, but what is driving the Madrid president towards a man who nearly ripped the club apart half a decade ago?

Madrid have rarely looked as good domestically as they did in the 2011-12 season when they won 32 out of 38 games, losing just twice and scoring a record 100 points.

Mourinho put the cat among the pigeons and even if his time battling with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona contributed to his own downfall, his loss of grace and what class he had, Perez noted that he had a coach who knew how to spar with what is still widely considered the best club side ever.

While the Barca-Madrid rivalry was overheated in that era, Perez would prefer that to the current state of play which has the Catalans dominating Los Blancos domestically.

Real Madrid have still been successful in Europe, winning three consecutive Champions League trophies, but they have been fortunate not to meet Barcelona in that time in the competition.

With Guardiola long gone and the calm, unthreatening Valverde at the helm of Barcelona, Mourinho would be less likely to set the two clubs at all-out war if he returned.

Perez will also look at the league table and see that there is not a single outstanding side in the division. Although Solari has enjoyed a decent start, if an experienced world-class coach was in charge of Madrid maybe they would be able to muscle their way to the front of the pack.

Other coaches turned Madrid down in the summer and Perez had to turn to Julen Lopetegui, who was not one of his top choices for the position. Unlike the former Spain coach, who suffered a brief and calamitous reign this year, Mourinho is a known quantity.

Jose Mourinho Real Madrid La Liga title

Parts of Real Madrid’s fan base would welcome him back with open arms – after all, Mourinho won the Premier League title when he returned to Chelsea in the 2014-15 season – although other supporters still remember the trouble he caused in the Spanish capital.

If Perez does hire Mourinho again he knows by now that the Portuguese will not be at the Bernabeu for a long time, but there is likely to be some good times along the way.

However, without the president’s rose-tinted glasses, bringing back Mourinho could easily do more harm than good.

It is hard to imagine him reconciling with captain Ramos and a Mourinho comeback might end up forcing the Spaniard to look for a new home in the United States or another lucrative spot.

In addition, El Pais say that former Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois verbally expressed his dismay at the idea of Mourinho or Antonio Conte coming to the club.

Furthermore, Real Madrid players tend to work better with less prescriptive coaches like Zindine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti, rather than strict managers like Rafa Benitez and Lopetegui. Mourinho would fall firmly in the latter category and under intense media scrutiny, the situation could soon turn problematic.

On paper Mourinho would be a surprising and negative appointment for Real Madrid, but the halcyon days and scraps with Barca appeal to president Perez, who wants to see his team regain ground in the eternal battle with their arch-rivals.

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Almiron’s Atlanta legacy is secure even if MLS Cup was his final match

If this was Miguel Almiron’s final act in Atlanta, and it very well may be, what an act it was. 

Widely linked with a move to Europe ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup, Almiron closed the season, and perhaps his MLS career, with yet another star performance. The Premier League may come calling in the coming weeks and, if Saturday was any indication, he’s more than ready. 

Everything Almiron brings to the table was on full display. There were sequences where he embarrassed those in front of him using his unique combination of skill and pace to help lead the Atlanta United attack. His direct free kick into the box led to Atlanta’s second goal and, ultimately, an MLS Cup. 

That’s what the night was about for Almiron: the MLS Cup. The rumors? Those are for another day. His future? That can wait. For Almiron, Saturday was about Atlanta and a two-year journey that saw him grow from potential star to actual star. 

“I’m coming back in the preseason,” Almiron said after the match as he repeatedly played coy about his future. 

“When I got to Atlanta I didn’t think we would enjoy all this,” he added. “It’s beautiful what I’ve lived here, and what I am living here. More for the people, you feel the love. I want to thank them for that.” 

The people of Atlanta can thank Almiron who, along with Josef Martinez, became the city’s first breakout stars. 

From the day he signed with the club, there was pressure on the Paraguayan midfielder as he signed for a transfer fee of around $8 million (£6m) from Lanus. There were expectations.  

Miguel Almiron MLS Atlanta United 12082018

He exceeded them at every turn. 

It didn’t matter that he wasn’t locally-cultivated. It didn’t matter that he was entering a club without any real soccer history. What mattered was talent, and Almiron’s has frequently been display throughout his two-year stay. 

In year one, it was a nine-goal and 14 assist campaign that fell short in the postseason. Year two? That was a different animal as the Paraguayan star fired 12 goals and 14 more assists and Atlanta smashed records. 

Martinez, too, was a record-breaker, having shattered the MLS single-season goalscoring mark, and the bond between the two was vital to Atlanta’s success. 

“Before the game, I had a moment with Miguel,” Martinez said, “and I just thanked him for all the help that he’s given me over the last two seasons. 

“I told him, ‘Please make me a champion today because I’ve never been a champion before’. I want to thank him for that.” 

Low and behold, it was the connection between Almiron and Martinez that led to the second and final goal. Almiron played in the cross, Martinez flicked it on, and Franco Escobar provided the finish. 

In some ways, it was a fitting moment. Almiron and Martinez did the heavy lifting with the teammate providing the rest. It wasn’t just Almiron and Martinez that carried Atlanta, but they were the ones that did the heavy lifting. 

Almiron may very well be headed off, but his impact in Atlanta will remain, even if it was forged in just two seasons. 

“His legacy, his impact on the game, on the team, on the city, it’s huge,” said goalkeeper Brad Guzan. “Whatever happens with Miguel, we wish him all the best. 

“He has been a fantastic servant of this club, of this city. He deserves everything that he’s going to get going forward in his career on an individual basis. 

“So, couldn’t be happier for him – if this is the end for him – to be able to send him off as a champion.” 

Guzan knows a thing or two about playing abroad, having featured for years with Aston Villa in the Premier League. He knows it takes something special to play at that level. 

In his eyes, Almiron has it. 

“I think he’ll do fantastic in England,” he said with a smile, giving a stamp of approval to a player that gave Atlanta everything it could have asked for.

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MLS Cup title a fitting end for Martino’s Atlanta United journey

Gerardo “Tata” Martino has a history of success, just not in finals. The manager mentioned it in the lead-up to Saturday’s MLS Cup final, saying he had lost more than he won. 

It’s a fair criticism, but Martino got it right Saturday.  

Atlanta United delivered a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers to claim the MLS Cup crown and send off the departing manager with a trophy. 

“Well, we won one, that’s good,” he said with a laugh after the match. “It’s been a long time. In 2013 with Newell’s and one title with Barca. Now this. After several disappointments, above all two in the Copa America. It’s a beautiful title and you celebrate after, obviously.” 

Martino lost the 2011 Copa America final with Paraguay and the 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa America Centenario finals when he was in charge of Argentina. On the club level, he guided Newell’s Old Boys to the 2013 Torneo Final title, though the team lost the subsequent Superfinal. But with Barcelona, he once again fell short, dropping the 2012-13 Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid. 

Perhaps that’s why, while Martino enjoyed the triumph, he took it a bit more in stride than might be expected for a coach who has often watched other teams lift trophies while he’s left to figure out where he’s going to put another runners-up medal. 

“For me, to talk about the final and the championship, it’s good, it’s beautiful. I’m happy, but what has happened over the length of these two years is what will stay with me. The work we did,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s necessary to win a title to think a job was well done.” 

Getting across the finish line might be the goal for most, but Martino says he took joy in the journey. The team finished by winning MLS cup, but the manager doesn’t think it would have happened without last year’s disappointment against Columbus or the frustration against Toronto FC at the end of the regular season that meant the New York Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield.  

Atlanta United MLS Cup 2018

For Martino, it also was about the work he was able to put in and the relationships he built. The 56-year-old’s last two jobs were at Barcelona and Argentina, places where the boss is asked to be much more of an executive than a teacher, more of a manager than a coach. 

The Atlanta job allowed the him to get back to his roots, helping individual players and laying out a vision for a club. This is a man who coached in Paraguay for years, far removed from the spotlight of the world’s media coverage that now follows him. 

“I said what happened to me here is I started to feel like a coach again from the perspective of putting a team together, signing players, giving the team an identity, see how the players are growing in the last two years,” he said. “A lot of times when you work at the top level, you feel like your part really isn’t as important, you don’t feel as involved in the growth.  

“Here the same thing happened as happened at Newell’s. I felt like I participated, I felt happy, I felt I had an influence on the growth of the team and the growth of the players, and I’ll try to conserve this and try to think about this above all when I have the possibility to choose another job.” 

That’s widely expected to be next week, with Martino set to take over the Mexico national team. His players were thrilled to send him off with a title. 

“He’s left his legacy here in Atlanta, and moves on to a new project, I’m guessing that’s Mexico,” defender Greg Garza told Goal. “The main thing for me was the humbleness and the honesty of the person that he is off the field. He’s a great coach on the field, but I think the person he is off the field is really what leaves his legacy for all of us.” 

One of the keys this season on the field was a willingness to adapt and flex away from the way he wanted to play to the way he needed to play. Atlanta went into the playoffs and dominated opponents, but even in Saturday’s second half the team wasn’t trying to play beautiful football. 

That had been accomplished in the first half and was rewarded with the halftime lead on Josef Martinez’s relatively simple goal after a Timbers botch job at the back. A second goal from a set piece meant the Five Stripes could hang back and defend their lead, then enjoy the celebrations that followed. 

“In the Toronto game, we saw that we weren’t as great in the build-up and we conceded a lot of goals. There were games before that which were a warning, but we didn’t lose. We changed, we got more solid,” Martino said. 

Those changes implemented in the postseason saw Atlanta roll to the title, scoring nine goals and conceding twice. That progression brought Martino joy, as did his time in Atlanta. Now he’s moving into another role where he hopes he can continue improving his record in finals.  

After the celebration. Obviously.

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‘Very good option’ Hazard will play as sole striker again – Sarri

Chelsea head coach Maurizio Sarri said he would use Eden Hazard as his team’s centre forward again in the future after the star impressed in the role against Manchester City.

The Belgium international started up front and set up goals for N’Golo Kante and David Luiz as Chelsea inflicted City’s first league loss of the season with a 2-0 win on Saturday.

Sarri is open to using the 27-year-old, who has seven goals and eight assists in 15 league games this campaign, in the same role in the future.

“He had some problems at the beginning of the match, but I think he played really a very great second half. Maybe he deserved to score,” he said.

“I think it’s a very good option. We will play like today in the future for some matches of course.”

Sarri’s switch meant Alvaro Morata was left out of the squad, with Olivier Giroud starting on the bench.

The Italian said that was a purely tactical decision as he saw no reason to have two strikers among his substitutes.

“The reason was clear. We played with Hazard as a striker, so if we have to change something there was Giroud,” Sarri said.

“I think it was useless to have two strikers on the bench and I prefer to have more midfielders.

“I was in trouble with the wingers. The only option was [Ruben Loftus-Cheek]. I prefer this.”

The Blues boss was also impressed with the performance of defender David Luiz, who helped keep City’s high-flying attack in check. 

“I have to say I’m really very happy with him from the beginning,” he said of the centre-back. 

“Of course, there are matches like this one in which it’s easier to stay in the defensive line. The defensive movements are working very well. And there are matches in which it’s really difficult to stay in the defensive line, like Tottenham, because the defensive phase of the team is a disaster.

“Today he played a great match, but all the team helped him to play really well.”

Chelsea are fourth in the Premier League after their win, eight points behind leaders Liverpool who took over top spot in the table thanks for City’s loss and their own 4-0 win over Bournemouth on Saturday. 

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