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Atlanta United and Miguel Almiron were flashy champions for a fickle sports city

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In the slapstick history of Atlanta sports, no one has illustrated the city’s transient beauty better than Miguel Almiron and United.

Miguel Almiron is not “undersized.” Almiron is downright little — a 5’9 attacking midfielder for Atlanta United so slight and unassuming, and lacking marquee soccer star hair, that he can be easily lost in a crowd. If I had to tell someone to find him, I’d only be able to suggest looking for the dude with:

a.) a truly awe-inspiring set of eyebrows, and

b.) the dark-haired guy who looks like the world’s oldest fourteen-year-old.

Almiron is almost sheepish in profile.

This might explain why he was so hard to see in the postgame commotion Saturday night. Atlanta United had just defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0 to win the MLS Cup, marking the first championship by any team in the city since the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995. There was Arthur Blank, the Home Depot baron and team owner, hoisting the championship trophy over his head with some effort. (It was touch-and-go for a minute, but he got it there.) There was shock-blonde Josef Martinez, the Venezuelan striker whose goal in the thirty-fifth minute broke the game open, cradling a baby who clearly wanted to be somewhere much quieter than a stadium full of fans.

Brad Guzan, the hairless 6’4” American goalie, couldn’t hide from anyone, much less the chants from the supporters’ section:

He’s big

He’s bald

He’s a motherfucking wall

Brad Guzaaaaaannnnnn

It took a minute to spot Almiron. He was standing with his dad, looking around and wide-eyed in the best possible sense of the word. He looked like a mildly surprised and maximally elated adolescent, not shocked but still not entirely expectant of what was a complete and certain victory.

Almiron plays for Atlanta United, a club in its second year of existence as a full-fledged soccer team. It plays in Atlanta, an often fickle, sometimes downright indifferent, and always tricky city for its major sports teams. There are tons of transplant residents who turn State Farm Arena into a home game for visiting NBA teams, and college football fans from all over who treat the Falcons as a pleasant but not obsessive follow on Sundays.

Even the Braves — the most consistent of all of Atlanta’s teams — had to move to Cobb County “to ensure attendance.”*

*Siphon the most taxpayer dollars off a willing county government

Atlanta, in turn, has to watch sports teams who even at their most successful have failed to win titles, display much consistency, or operate competently. Each franchise has had long fainting spells when they muddled along half-consciously. (See: Most of the Hawks history.) Some have served as little more than dark comedy vehicles until recently, and even then the highs have been marred by the lowest of lows.

Good sports things do not happen here, at least not without teeth-gnashing, or an eventual comeuppance, or maybe a biblical disaster. The first Super Bowl here happened the week of an ice storm, and Ray Lewis got tangled up in a stabbing, for instance. The Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl and lost their best player ever to a dogfighting ring. The city lost not one, but two NHL franchises due to neglect. The Hawks are the Hawks.

ATL United hit a slipstream in history and skipped all that.

The team sold well from the beginning, packing houses even when they were playing in Georgia Tech’s stadium to start. The brand took root with ease, and with some savvy help from the marketing department. They left United flags on doors, got Archie Eversole to record a United-themed hype video for “We Ready”, and developed a raucous bunch of supporters clubs with astonishing speed.

United’s brand off the field and presence in the city is somehow more definite and developed right now than the Falcons or Hawks might have ever been — this, despite both of those teams creeping up on a combined century of professional residence in the city.

On the field, United had Almiron. His unassuming manner off the field was a direct contrast to his hellbent pace, left-footed volleys at goal, and his startling ability to hit a full blazing gallop from a dead still start. Playing in former Barcelona manager Tata Martino’s attacking style, Almiron had free rein to create from midfield, collapsing defenses with both change of direction and outright speed.

Coltish: The word for how he moves with the ball is coltish, like a young horse just discovering just how much grass it can cover with just a few strides. Almiron’s best plays combined all that pace and vision with the willingness to barrel into defenders, and a deft enough foot to put the ball wherever it needed to be once he’d tiptoed through them.

He wasn’t perfect for United, but there were easy ways around that. Almiron didn’t always finish beautifully, but that’s what Martinez and a freewheeling green light from the manager were for. Even with his minor imperfections, Almiron still scored 12 goals in the regular season, including this stunner of a free kick against New York City a few weeks ago. In short: If the Atlanta attack was a grease fire, then Almiron was the grease.

That’s a metaphor the home of Waffle House should be able to live with forever. What’s next for United will be harder to stomach. Almiron is likely gone in a hurry, seemingly playing his way into a bid from Newcastle in the Premier League. Manager Tata Martino accepted a four-year contract to coach the Mexican national team back in mid-November. Striker and local demigod Martinez may leave, too.

Almiron sat next to Martinez during the victory parade in Atlanta on Monday morning. He was a little easier to find this time, smiling and waving and filming the crowd with his phone. He stood atop the open bus in the back with Martinez as the team threw little soccer balls out into the crowd, and hoisted the cup up for fans sitting in misting rain. Martinez gave a thumbs-up to the crowd and nodded at chants of “M-V-P.” Almiron, in contrast, looked more like a guest of the team just happy to be there.

Someone bobbed in front of the bus carrying a cardboard cutout: Arthur Blank’s head, just visible over the assembled head of the crowd, floated down Marietta Street.

The bus rounded the corner past Centennial Park and then south towards Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This was where the old Omni stood, before it was imploded for something else. Up ahead was the new stadium, a jagged pile of polygons built just next to the space once occupied by the Georgia Dome.

Buildings, like everything else, don’t really last long in Atlanta, a city that thrives on demolition, and whose most notable landmark is the airport. That may be, in part, why United thrived here so quickly. Professional soccer is a game of traffic and turnover, full of impermanence — managers leaving, stars getting transferred, movement up and down tiers, and sometimes across continents. Staying in one place for a whole career is the exception, not the rule. Things inevitably, and often suddenly, change.

The parade may have been the last hurrah of Miguel Almiron and this United team — a team that happened in some blessed, drama-free space existing apart from the rest of Atlanta sports history. Yet even with the full admission that the celebration was also the finale, there’s also every reason to believe that more than any other place, Atlanta will be ready to drive down and meet a whole new crew at the airport to try again.

Oh, and there is an airport, if you haven’t heard. It’s kind of the whole deal here. People and things come and go all the time by design — even Almiron, the teenaged-looking midfielder who helped bring Atlanta its first championship in a long, long time. The hope is to appreciate what he was on the way up, that he thrives wherever he goes, and try to remember what he was largely responsible for — a quicksilver two years of exhilarating team soccer that almost redeemed the entire slagheap of Atlanta’s sports history all by itself. That a hard-to-spot, unassuming guy from Paraguay was an essential part of the most bankable, electric thing in town.

He has to go, and we get that. That kind of mild, fond heartbreak is the standard here.

The cup stays.