Sports are stupid. Sports are irrational. Sports are dumb. Complain if you like, but it is truth. Sports makes no damned sense. You know as much. In that kernel of greater reasoning embedded in your frontal cortex, you know. In that shimmering pool of pure reason bottled up inside your forehead, you know. But you don’t believe.
Sports work the way religions work. They leverage belief, which is more primal, and thus primary, over and above whatever Kantian nonsense you want to pretend is in charge. They dig deeper, bypassing that precious little barking mammal, driving straight down to the reptile at the center. Sports wrap around the base of you, the roiling incoherent center of your screaming id. They take control from the bottom up. You feel them more than you think them. A coiled serpent, a constrictor of irrational desire, wrapped from the base of the skull all the way down to where the intestines meet the ass. Sports run on the spinal fluid of pure belief. They ride the chasis, not the engine. That’s why you feel them best down deep, in your guts.
Sports are stupid. Sports are dumb. They are so incredibly dumb. Lucky shirts. Rally caps. Virgin births. None of it makes a lick of sense. Yet still. Ecce homo fanaticus. Behold. The fan.
Perhaps the dumbest aspect of sports is the idea of The Curse. The beloved home team, doomed by fates and fury to ever fail. The Cubs and that stupid goat. The Red Sox and the idiot notion that selling a contract has after effects generations long. Throwing the par-3 pretourney so as not to spoil the chance at the green jacket. Tracking the obits any time Aaron Ramsey scores. Stupid, stupid, stupid, and stupid. Idiocy. Superstitious hokum! Now, take that level of incontinent moronicism and instead a single team, apply it to an entire city. Oh, Atlanta.
The Mike Budenholzer era Hawks’ inability to take a single playoff game from LeBron’s Cavaliers is in no way whatsoever related, at any level, in any manner, to say… Mark Wohlers hanging a slider to Jim Leyritz. Think about the level of debauched causation necessary to even imply such a thing. There is no connection between Eugene Robinson’s libido and Joey Devine’s inability to throw one by Chris Burke. Between the Outfield Fly and the impossible sequencing of events in Superbowl LI. And none of them; nor the twice-lived failure of NHL hockey to take root in the city; have anything to do with the 1996 Olympics. This. Is. Stupid. But tell that to the serpent of belief twined widdershins around your spine.
You know it’s stupid. You know it’s dumb. You know it’s irrational idiocy. And yet it remains. You watch the same show over and over. You know where the jump scares come. You know the gasping reveal of truth behind the Bent-neck Lady. And yet it remains. The witch isn’t real. There’s no such thing as ghosts. Curses are stupid and dumb. Yet still, you are haunted. From 2016 forward, from 28-3 through the unimaginable trail of horrors that seemed to follow in its wake, triply so. Haints upon haints, piled to the rafters.
Enter, stage left, Josef Martinez.
If, prior to this winter, one were inclined to build a “Mt. Rushmore” of Atlanta sports it might have gone something like this. First we’d have to establish up front that the ATL specific version of the mount would differ from the “Georgia” version. Herschel Walker, glorious demigod of the state’s most popular sporting religion, both Herakles and Thor of Dawg Nation, would likely fall by the way. Ty Cobb, historic curmudgeon of baseball’s inglorious past, as well. There would undoubtedly be vigorous debate and argument elsewhere. Has Chipper displaced Hammerin’ Hank for the MLB slot? Is it reasonable to rank a legend of his sport like Bobby Jones, even if no one outside of Augusta would recognize a picture of him in the wild? How close is Matt Ryan to claiming the Falcons’ representation? For ONLY ATL?
As long as he is with us, I go with Hank. I love Chipper as much as the next guy, but the Hammer is the Hammer. Hank is in. Same goes for ‘Nique. The Hawks have never won a championship for the city, as we all know. But there are few true icons of sport associated with Atlanta, and Dominique Wilkins is one of them. The Human Highlight Film is legend. Defense is overrated. ‘Nique is in. Which brings us to the Falcons.
All due respect to Steve Bartkowski and Jesse Tuggle, it comes down to three options. Matt Ryan and his still underappreciated decade of MVP caliber play. The electric vitality of Mike Vick quantum leaping himself around and through large men intent on violence. And the high stepping king hisownself, Deion Sanders. Prime Time.
That nugget of thinking brain we discussed earlier leans pretty heavily to Ryan here. Matt Ryan has been very, very good, for a very long time. He’s taken the Falcons to heights they had never previously imagined, the inability of a gassed secondary to make a single tackle in the fourth quarter notwithstanding. If you look at the DVOA charts, it’s pretty clearly Matty Ice. But this is sports. And what are sports? That’s right, kids. Sports are stupid.
Michael Vick should own this spot. It would be unquestionable, if not for the crash landing there at the end. Nothing before him truly prepared the Atlantan for the Mike Vick show. Deion was John the Baptist. Mike Vick was Jesus. The arm. The legs. The swagger. That scramble in OT vs Minnesota… But then, the dogs. The time served. A year of Joey Harrington and that entire Bobby Petrino shitfest. All of that drains into the margins of any iconography of Vick. Soils the edges. Tarnishes the whole. It’s a shame, but that’s all been said before. Oh, Atlanta.
Which brings us to Deion. Hell of a consolation prize, really. Yes, Ryan has the better rational case. He’s a career Falcon. He’s got the better statistical resume. He has the… Nope. “Prime Time! Prime Time! Prime Time!” Yeah. It’s Deion. It was always going to be Deion.
ed note: “Mike Vick is as Atlanta as roads named Peachtree, gunshot wounds at Grady and drunken 2am visits to Waffle House. Prime Time decamped for SF and the Boys. Matt Ryan is too corporate. Mike Vick is rush hour traffic, lines at The Varsity and trap music. There will be black #7 jerseys in the ATL for as long as there is an ATL. – wjh”
So now we have three of our four mountainous heads carved. Now it gets tricky. The golfing faithful – a tribe I have been convinced of late does actually exist, though for reasons that belie my personal kin – would undoubtedly promote Bobby Jones. Bobby Jones is a golfing legend. A founding icon of the sport. Atlanta native. Big sprawling mess of a golf course right there on Northside named after him. Founded the most prestigious club on the continent over in Augusta. There’s an argument there. But really? Golf?
I’d put even money that even rabid golf fans (?!) would be hard pressed to identify the man’s mug in a lineup. No. My final carving will not be Bobby Jones, patron saint of “who’s that guy?” Neither will it be the runner-up of the great Falcons debates. Nor will we bend to the upswell of Atlanta local Bulldog fans still clamoring for Herschel. We did that already. No. My final spot goes to The Real Deal. Evander Holyfield. Olympic hero. Undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
So there you have it. Done and done. A solid and defensible Mt. Rushmore of Atlanta sporting icons. The immortal Hammer. ‘Nique in flight, at the apex of the windmill. Prime Time, high stepping the final 15 yards down the sideline. And the Real Deal, mangled ear and all. Book it. Except…
Enter. Stage left. Josef Martinez.
Plenty of words have been spilled on the phenomenon that is Atlanta United. About how a sprawling mess of a city in the American south, known primarily in sporting circles for fans who don’t show up and teams who return the favor, in the span of two short years, have become one of the largest drawing soccer clubs in the world. About how an expansion side for a third tier North American league is suddenly winning interest from young talent over hundreds-year-old established international clubs. About how said league is now in the midst of a third transformation, all driven by the need and desire of ownership, both new and old alike, to keep up with the behemoth built by the new “Kings of the South.” You can google. These words are easy to find if you’re interested. I’d advise it, if you’re a fan of soccer, sports, great business building, or Atlanta. But this isn’t about them. This isn’t even about the club in full, I suppose; though it should be. Sports are dumb. This is about Josef.
Josef Martinez isn’t even the best player on his team. He’ll tell anyone who listens as much. That honor goes to his roommate and best friend, Miguel Almiron. Miggy, a Paraguayan spark plug of a #10, is everywhere on the pitch. He’s relentless. He never stops. He runs faster with the ball than he does without. He sees open space better than anyone else in the league. He slices defenses. Shreds them, and then finds the perfect passing channel to lead the on-rushing runner. He tracks back 60 yards to dispossess and defend. In college football terms, Miggy “has a motor that never stops.” In professional terms, he’s the franchise quarterback, creating and delivering chances to his teammates at the perfect moment. Miguel Almiron is the most talented young soccer player to ever play in an American league. Soon, his rights will be sold to a European club for thrice what United paid for him, upwards of $30 million in transfer fees. He will join Arsenal or Newcastle and take the next step on the international stage. Josef will remain.
Josef has been to Europe already. Prior to Atlanta, he spent time with Turin in Italy’s Serie A. Martinez is Venezuelan. Internationally, much like America, Venezuela is known for its baseball players. (Josef bonded locally with his fellow countryman, Braves’ CF Ender Inciarte .) Venezuelans, much like Americans, have to prove themselves twice over in Europe. Josef is a natural #9. If Miggy, as the #10, is the quarterback, then Josef, as the #9, is Julio Jones. He’s the striker. The finisher. The one that halls it in. Josef is the guy that puts the final pass in the back of the net. In Turin, they played him as a winger. Josef is not a winger. Josef does not create for others to finish. Josef is a wolf. Josef is a shark. Josef hunts. Josef ends things. AU saw him for what he was, regardless of nationality or size. (Josef is only 5’6”.) AU brought him over and put him in the box. In front of the opposing keeper. And they said to him, “Shark. Go do shark things.” “Wolf,” they said, “go be a wolf.” Unleashed, Josef feasted.
Josef doesn’t celebrate his goals in the traditional manner. He does not run into a corner, slide on his knees, arms outstretched to embrace the fans. He doesn’t run circles, madly tearing off his jersey. He rarely bounds into the crowd. He stopped doing that in Europe, where fans only supported him if he was perfect. Josef celebrates goals by standing statue-still and glaring. At the fans. At the cameras. At opposing keepers. At the gods. Josef glares.
The first time I saw him do this was in 2017. We were watching a match at home, the wife and I. Josef puts another one away, and for the first time I really see him go into his post-goal staredown. I mutter to myself, and she asks “what?” I repeat; “He doesn’t know.”
This is Atlanta. Jim Leyritz. Eugene Robinson. Chris <insert word here Rob would edit away> Burke. Atlanta. This level of confidence? This level of arrogance? This is Atlanta! He doesn’t know.
The wife watches the replay. Being wise and reasonable beyond my skill, she corrects me. “He knows. He just doesn’t care.”
On that day, at that very moment, Josef Martinez became my favorite player. Chipper is retired. Ronald is so very young. Freddie is the guy you friend zone. Freddie hugs. Josef glares. Mr. Holyfield, Champ; your time was great, but it is past. We need the space for a new likeness.
In order to get to the championship match Atlanta had to play two elimination home and away series. Both were against clubs they had never defeated. In the semifinals, they took on NYCFC; New York City Football Club. NYCFC play on a painfully small pitch shoehorned into Yankee Stadium. The size and compact spaces of the pitch are major advantage for the home side. Doubly so against a squad like United, who want to play open, pretty, flowing soccer. City had only lost once previously at home. Atlanta sports fans know this story already, right?
You don’t. United marched into the Bronx and throttled City on their home pitch. Came away with a 1-0 win, and in the way of soccer home and aways, a crucial away goal advantage. Back in Atlanta for the second leg, United beat them again easily. 3-1 final, never truly in question, in front of 72,000 adoring fans. Atlanta breathed.
This set up a conference final between the two best teams in the league; Atlanta and Red Bulls New York. RBNY, whom they had also never beaten. RBNY, who ruined their inaugural match at Bobby Dodd Stadium with a vicious comeback win. RBNY, who embarrassed them in a showdown for regular season bragging rights earlier in the fall. RBNY who, after a most Atlantan collapse against a reeling Toronto FC side in the final result of the year, stole the Supporters’ Shield from them. As the lower seeded team, AU hosted the first leg this time. You know this story, right? Again, you don’t.
Atlanta goes up 1-0 at home, before Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Philips puts a set-piece cross past Brad Guzan. Suddenly the match is back on. All tied up. Even if they fall eventually, New York has a crucial away goal. Except they don’t. Officials go to video review (It’s sports in 2018; there’s always video review.) A Red Bull is offside on the play. In a position that shields Guzan from the strike. Interference. Goal waived off. We’re back to 1-0. Think of it as the opposite of the Outfield Fly. In the 71st minute, defender Franco Escobar doubles the margin. In extra time, supersub Tito Villalba bends a Premiere League quality strike around a defender and inside the near post. 3-0! Atlanta goes back to New York – well, Harrison, New Jersey, but ya know – and simply parks the bus. Ugly, ignoble, horrible, defense-only soccer. It is glorious. RBNY sneak one by Guzan in stoppage time, but United easily advance on the aggregate tally, 3-1.
This is the highlights package of the 2018 MLS Cup.
We played Portland. Portland were a bit of a Cinderella story in the playoffs. But, Atlanta. We hosted the league’s final match, the Cup championship, in front of more than 73,000 fans. The largest crowd to every watch an MLS match. Play the video package. Go to the 0:57 minute mark.
A Portland defender clears a loose ball from the left side of his box. His pass is to Timbers striker Jeremy Ebobisse, whose first touch is heavy. The ball runs away from him a bit, and Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst pounces. Parkhurst has lost four times in the Cup finals. Three times with the New England Revolution, “the Buffalo Bills of MLS.” Then after a free agent deal with league stalwarts Columbus Crew, he loses again. Michael Parkhurst is Atlantan to his bones. His tackle of Ebobisse is form perfect. The ball spurts loose again, and falls. To Josef.
Press play. Listen to the crowd. An entire city exhales in screaming unison. Josef. Julio and Mike Vick and Prime, all in one. Calmly rounds the keeper and slots it home like nothing. Welcome to immortality buddy. You’ll never buy another drink in this town again.
Final tally was 2-0. After the match, they took the Cup itself to Magic City. If I have to explain to you why that is so perfect, you’re probably not from Atlanta, are you?