Strange moments, stale beer, and unicorns

A personal reflection of the 2018 MLS Cup Final

Mike Conti
December 08, 2019 - 10:33 am
Atlanta United celebrates with the MLS Cup

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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It started on the tarmac of Newark Airport. With stale beer.

Atlanta United had just suffered its greatest loss in club history, a 1-0 defeat to New York Red Bulls in the second leg of the 2018 MLS Eastern Conference Final, a more than sufficient result to carry them in to the MLS Cup Final.  As we waited to board the team’s charter flight back to Atlanta, someone hurriedly tapped me on the shoulder, speaking very rapid and unintelligible Spanish.

It was Josef Martinez.  He was holding the Eastern Conference Trophy (also known as the “Son of Baconater").  And he wanted me to drink from it.

Of course, I wasn’t going to say no to the league’s Most Valuable Player and single-season goal scoring record holder.  So I drank from it. I’m still not sure what was in it, but I think it was some pretty stale beer.

And that’s how an 11-day whirlwind that culminated with Atlanta’s greatest sports celebration in over two decades began.

It really is hard to believe that it has been a full year since Atlanta United hoisted the MLS Cup, giving our city it’s first Major League sports championship in 23 years.  So much of the build-up to the actual game, and the celebration that followed, was a blur. So I wanted to put my memories on paper to serve as a kind of time capsule. Even if we have more championships in the future, you always remember your first.

I honestly thought that there would be throngs of media and well wishers at the charter terminal when we landed after the Red Bulls match.  Team security did not want that, and they got their wish. Channel 5 sent a reporter and cameraman to the airport, but I don’t think they got much.  For the team, it was business as usual. For Jason Longshore, myself, and the staff at 92.9 The Game, it was anything but.

We made the group decision at the radio station that the run-up to the MLS Cup Final would be treated the same as we treated the two weeks leading up to the Falcons Super Bowl appearance in 2017.  That meant special programming, expanded pregame coverage, lots of contingency planning, and LOTS of content. It also meant lots of work.

Initially, my thought was to make sure I was prepared as I could be to broadcast the actual match.  On the bus from Red Bull Arena to the airport, I asked a member of the team’s staff which Western Conference Finalist he would rather play the following week (the second leg of the West Final was in progress as we drove to the airport).  “Portland,” he said. “They’re dodgy in the back.”  

So I started working on dodgy Portland.  And that involved conversations with my soccer sherpa (Jason), along with a very-helpful Jake Zivin, the uber-talented play-by-play voice of the Timbers.  Jake is someone I listen to when I try to get better at my craft, so being able to share notes with him was a special treat. I looked at as much film as I could, and after assembling my notes and building my spot chart, I felt extremely ready to call the MLS Cup Final.

Unfortunately, it was only Monday.

The week leading up to the MLS Cup Final in Atlanta felt like it moved incredibly slowly, but there were a few things that I remember vividly.  A raucous, celebratory edition of Stoppage Time that was extended to two hours and broadcast live on the radio station. The madhouse of the press center which was set up at the Downtown Westin, where I believe I was first in line to pick up my accreditation card (five days before the match).  A visit with Alexi Lalas, where he asked me if I was nervous. That one actually really stands out to me, because it was the first time I gave a truly honest answer to anyone who asked me that question: “no.”

I wanted to make sure that I did everything possible to make sure I wasn’t going to go down as the radio broadcaster who messed up the call of the MLS Cup Final.  Steve Holman correctly warned me that I may never get another chance at this. So I consulted with several of my friends and colleagues who have called some big games.  All of them had great advice. Wes Durham, who has called a Super Bowl and a National Collegiate Basketball Championship, had the best advice of all: “whatever happens, don’t rehearse it.”

It was at that point that I chose to ignore his advice.  More on that later.

The day of the game was absolutely horrific from a weather standpoint.  The radio station had a day-long broadcast planned for outside Mercedes Benz Stadium that had to be moved back in to our studios.  With my preparation long complete, my wife and I went to Costco. Along with bumping in to longtime Atlanta sportscaster Randy Waters (who I think was surprised to see me out and about on a game day), I vividly remember almost everyone in the store wearing some kind of Five Stripes gear, from scarves to shirts to hats.  That got me very excited. Then I looked at my watch.

Eight more hours.

Eventually, after several call-in appearances on our all-day coverage of the match, I made it down to Mercedes Benz Stadium.  As we were doing a two hour pre-match show, I arrived absurdly early to set up. The press box was extremely organized, and thanks to the efforts of  ace stadium press liason Jason Kirksey, we were able to use our usual broadcast booth despite the league’s attempts to move us elsewhere.

Despite a no-show by a guest that was foisted on us at the last minute by our program director, the pregame show seemed to fly by.  At one point, I was able to excuse myself to get a drink. And that’s when a delightfully bizarre “Atlanta Sports” moment occurred in the press area.

Many of you know Walter Banks, the legendary usher from Braves games who also happens to be a press box steward at Falcons and Atlanta United events.  Earlier in the season, Walter and I sat for an hour and shared stories about Atlanta, the way it was. Walter is as big a treasure as they come in our city, and the Atlanta United staff was well aware of it.  Chris Raimondi, one of Atlanta United’s Communications staffers, set up a small ceremony where he presented Walter with that night’s Atlanta United team sheet, signed by Manager Tata Martino. A priceless piece of Atlanta sports history, coveted by thousands of Atlanta United supporters.

Walter, who is the most polite man on Earth, looked at Chris and graciously accepted the team sheet.  The only problem was that Walter didn’t know what it was.

“Here, would you throw this out please?” Walter said as he turned to the closest person to him.  Which happened to be Falcons President Rich McKay. I’m pretty sure Rich didn’t throw it out, but I am not positive.

As the actual match unfolded, I remember how oddly calm I was, which probably sounds odd to any of you who have listed to Jason and I call a match.  It was certainly emotional, and I remember several points where the crowd was blasting through my headset. The first “We are The A” chant immediately after the match kicked off is something I will never forget. 

But I think I was so calm because the match felt so, well, routine.  Atlanta United was in control throughout, scored two beautiful goals, and except for one Brad Guzan save on Jeremy Ebobise, was never really threatened.  It felt so common for a home match that year, even with the stakes being as high as they were. As Jason correctly pointed out after the match, none of us really felt like we had to worry about anything.  It was a confident performance.

When it became clear that Atlanta United was going to win (and for me that became clear after Franco Escobar’s second half goal), I knew that I had better not say anything stupid when the match ended.  It was possible that whatever I said was going to be replayed. Maybe a lot. So here is where I ignored Wes’ advice and tried to get some thoughts organized. Everything I kept coming back to was that Atlanta had waited 23 years for this.  A long time. With many disappointments. Eric Gregg. Matthew Delevadova. John Elway. 28-3. It felt like a very long wait was now over. “It is over.” And that’s basically all I said when Allen Chapman blew for full time.

When I finally got the words out, I felt like I needed to hug someone.  I wanted to hug Jason, but he was savoring the moment and eloquently encapsulating what we just saw.  I turned around and noticed that suddenly there were a lot of people in our broadcast booth. Jarrett Smith was one of them, and I was really glad he was there (he is a long time friend).  He was crying. I tried to high five our engineer, Eric Davis, and missed badly. Jimmy Vance, our producer, finally got the first hug. It was a joyful experience and it set the tone for an emotional two hour post-match show where some tears of joy were shed.

When we signed off for the night, Ryan Cataneese of Atlanta United’s digital team tipped me that the trophy was on the field and available for a photo.  I declined. The players won that trophy, not the broadcasters. Plus, I had to be back on the air in nine hours to do the Falcons pregame show.

The following morning, Arthur Blank sat with me for an interview on the Falcons pregame show.  He was sleep deprived after an early morning flight to Green Bay. But I will never forget his enthusiasm about what had taken place the night before.  He confirmed to me that Atlanta United’s championship was “right at the very top” of his list of professional and business accomplishments, which I still feel to this day is a profound statement, considering the successes of The Home Depot, the Atlanta Falcons, and so many of his other endeavours.

Atlanta United’s staff had very quietly been preparing for a possible victory parade, which did require a degree of advance planning because of the permits and police support needed to stage it.  The parade plan was dubbed “Project Unicorn” in the Atlanta United offices, because nobody had really seen a unicorn before; and, well, nobody had really seen a championship parade in Atlanta before.  It turned out to be incredibly well-executed and tens of thousands of people attended.

Jason, Jimmy, myself and Mena Diaz, who produced Stoppage Time, were in an SUV trailing the double-decker bus that carried Atlanta United’s players over the parade route to Mercedes Benz Stadium.  It was our intention to provide a play-by-play description of the parade from that vantage point for our radio listeners. That became impossible about 200 yards in to the parade, when spectators decided to simply join the parade and walk in front of our car.  That was one of the not-so-delightful oddities of the MLS Cup for me: we were in a parade that I didn’t actually get to see.

Now, it is one year later.  I am in Charlotte on the one year anniversary of the Cup Final, broadcasting an Atlanta Hawks game.  The Hawks actually had a very important role in our radio coverage of the MLS Cup Final. The team was gracious enough to move their game (they played at the exact same time across the street) to another radio station so the soccer match could be aired on 92.9 The Game.  That was a class move by them, because contractually (at the time) they did not have to do that. The Hawks won that night, and I was told Lloyd Pierce started his press conference by asking if Atlanta United won. I also remember how excited Kent Bazemore was. He was (and probably still is) a huge Atlanta United fan.

It’s been a little more than a month since Atlanta United’s attempt at defending their championship was halted abruptly by Toronto FC.  It’s still a little bit difficult for me to process how that happened. It feels like we should have had another Cup Final at the Benz, and another parade in Downtown Atlanta.  Hopefully we get another one. But no matter what, we always have the memories of December 8, 2018.

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