pcloudy.png
Thursday June 20th, 2019 5:36PM

Column: Remember Chiefs as Atlanta United goes for MLS title

By The Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Dick Cecil still has the championship trophy, tucked away somewhere in his home, a cherished prize that has been reduced to bits and pieces by the ravages of time.

He'd like to get it fixed up, maybe give it a place of honor at Manuel's Tavern, a famed Atlanta watering hole.

"It needs to be on display," Cecil says.

Indeed, it does.

When Atlanta United takes the field in Saturday night's MLS Cup championship game, you'll hear a lot of talk about this city — once dubbed "Loserville USA" — seeking only its second major league sports crown. They'll point to the 1995 Atlanta Braves as the only barrier to a total title blackout in a place that has known far more agony than triumph.

Well, let's not forget the Atlanta Chiefs .

Fifty years ago, in a fitting bit of symmetry, an upstart soccer team in a fledgling league gave an up-and-coming city a reason to cheer. The Chiefs won the very first title in the North American Soccer League, beating the San Diego Toros 3-0 before a crowd of about 15,000 at Atlanta Stadium.

When it ended, those fans — small in number, but eager to celebrate — stormed the field.

Afterward, there were champagne toasts in the locker room.

And then? Well, that's about it.

"A lot of people back in 1968 thought God did not intend Southerners to play soccer," said Bob Hope, who was the Chiefs' right-out-of-college public relations director.

Cecil, the team's vice president and chief architect, still has some team memorabilia in a small building behind his house, which serves as his office and a de facto museum of Atlanta sports history.

He shows off a ball signed by all the Chiefs players, their signatures still as legible as the day they put pen to synthetic leather. He still has a gold medal awarded to the champions by the league office ("We bought all the players rings, but they really just wanted a medal," Cecil says, chuckling at the cultural divide between American-based sports and the rest of the world. "I doubt anyone ever wore one of those rings.")

Cecil also has a picture of a bunch of smiling young men posing behind their trophy (still intact) on that glorious September night in 1968, when Atlanta was on top of the American soccer world, whatever that was worth at the time.

"Let me put it this way," says John Cocking, a Chiefs defender who left his native England to take a chance on something new. "As an athlete, performing in a league with players from all over the world, to go through and end up winning it all, whether you're playing in front of one spectator or 100,000 spectators, a player's feeling is very much the same. You had success against your peers. That's what the game is all about."

It's certainly worth noting the seed planted by the Chiefs all those years ago. It wasn't readily apparent in the stands — the team, in two different incarnations covering a total of 10 years, never averaged as many as 8,000 fans per game — but it took root in all the high schools that added soccer as a varsity sport, all the youth leagues that sprouted up around metro Atlanta.

"Suddenly, you would drive around Atlanta, particularly in the suburbs, and see soccer games cropping up," Hope recalled. "None of that existed before."

Still, the second version of the Chiefs folded after the 1981 season, followed just a few years later by the demise of the entire NASL. After that, Atlanta went without a big-time soccer team for more than three-and-half decades.

Then, Atlanta United joined Major League Soccer in 2017 as an expansion team — and quickly became its greatest success story . United has shattered basically every MLS attendance record, averaging more than 53,000 per game this season to rank as one of the best-supported clubs in the world. A crowd of more than 70,000 is expected for the title game against the Portland Timbers. The fans are young, hip and extremely diverse, turning Mercedes-Benz Stadium into a singing, chanting, flag-waving spectacle that wouldn't look out of place in the Premier League or La Liga.

"We went to one of the first home games this year," said Jane Cocking, John's wife. "When we came up the stadium escalators into the plaza area around the stadium, there were thousands of fans. The supporters' band, they were playing. Everyone was cheering. I just started boo-hooing. ... This is what we dreamt of."

Cecil was an executive in the Braves front office when the baseball team moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, giving the city its first major league team (the Falcons would make it two later that year, joining the NFL as an expansion team). The Chiefs were hastily launched in 1967, joining one of two new leagues that were founded in North America to cash in on soccer's rising popularity after England captured the World Cup.

Of course, it didn't take long to realize just how tough it would be to sell the sport on this side of the Atlantic. Five franchises folded, several moved to new cities and the two leagues merged into the 17-team NASL.

After a mediocre debut, the Chiefs blossomed into one of the better teams in Year 2. They even gained a bit of worldwide notoriety by winning a pair of exhibition games with Manchester City, which was coming off a championship in England's top division.

Cecil gleefully pulls out a book about the history of the NASL.

"Look at the title of the first chapter," he says.

I thumb quickly to the table of contents.

"Atlanta, Champions of England," it says.

"I love that!" Cecil says, erupting in a laugh pulled straight from the belly.

More than 23,000 turned out for the first match, a 3-2 victory for the Chiefs. In all fairness, Man City was coming off a long season and didn't bring along many of its top players. Still, the loss was clearly galling for Man City, which quickly adjusted its schedule to set up a rematch in Atlanta about three weeks later while on the way back to England. The team even sent for some additional players to bolster the roster.

But the Chiefs prevailed again , 2-1, to the delight of nearly 26,000 fans who watched a game that was played on a pitch that included part of the dirt infield required by the Braves.

There won't be any dirt infields when Atlanta United goes for a title at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But John and Jane Cocking will be there.

Their sons purchased tickets as an early Christmas present.

The city plans to hold a parade if United wins Saturday night. Maybe the Chiefs can come along for the ride.

"I feel very proud of the job we did," John Cocking said. "When I see what's happening today, it makes me even more proud. We were the pioneers. Even though it was small compared to what it is now, it was a beginning."

___

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

___

For more AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP Sports, AP Online Baseball , AP Online Football, AP Online - Georgia News, AP Sports - Major League Baseball, AP Sports - NFL
© Copyright 2019 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Sudan soccer fans clash with police, call on Bashir to leave
Sudanese soccer fans call on Bashir to step down, clash with police
7:38AM ( 8 minutes ago )
Cause of Indonesia tsunami pondered amid search for missing
Indonesian government workers and volunteers searched debris-strewn beaches for survivors and bodies, while families tried to identify their loved ones and grieved for the dead from a nighttime tsunami that struck beaches along an Indonesian strait
7:34AM ( 12 minutes ago )
The Latest: Searchers look for victims; tsunami toll now 280
Thousands of soldiers, police and government personnel as well as volunteers are working to find victims of an Indonesian tsunami that killed at least 280 people
6:50AM ( 56 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
Seahawks clinch playoff berth outlasting Chiefs 38-31
Russell Wilson threw three touchdown passes including a 2-yard TD to Ed Dickson with 7:31 remaining, Chris Carson rushed for two scores, and the Seattle Seahawks clinched an NFC wild-card berth with a 38-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night
1:38AM ( 6 hours ago )
Curry makes last-second layup, Warriors beat Clippers
Steph Curry made a layup with 0.5 seconds left and the Golden State Warriors outlasted the Los Angeles Clippers 129-127
12:37AM ( 7 hours ago )
Eagles stay alive with 32-30 win over Texans
Jake Elliott kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired and the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Houston Texans 32-30 to keep their playoff hopes alive
11:50PM ( 7 hours ago )
AP Sports
Sabathia had heart blockage that required stent inserted
Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia had a stent inserted to clear a blockage in an artery from his heart
7:45PM ( 2 days ago )
Dodgers send Puig, Wood to Reds for Homer Bailey
Los Angeles Dodgers send OF Yasiel Puig to Cincinnati Reds in blockbuster trade
7:36PM ( 2 days ago )
Cardinals reach $25M, 2-year deal with Andrew Miller
Left-handed reliever Andrew Miller has agreed to a $25 million, two-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, a deal that includes a club option and performance bonuses that could make it worth $36 million over three seasons
7:11PM ( 2 days ago )
AP Online Baseball
The Latest: 3 players ejected in Bears-49ers game
The Latest: The Bears-49ers game has been marred by the ejections of three players following a scuffle near the Bears bench.
6:57PM ( 12 hours ago )
The Latest: Lutz sets Saints' mark with 26th field goal
The Latest: Saints kicker Wil Lutz hits team-record 26th consecutive field goal in game against Steelers.
6:23PM ( 13 hours ago )
Pats beat Bills 24-12, earn 10th straight AFC East title
Sony Michel ran for 116 yards and a touchdown and the New England Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills 24-12 to earn their 10th straight AFC East title
6:13PM ( 13 hours ago )
AP Online Football
AP Online - Georgia News
Nationals finalize $4M, 1-year deal with Adams
The Nationals have finalized a $4 million, one-year deal with first baseman Matt Adams that includes a $3 million salary for next season and a $4 million mutual option for 2020 with a $1 million buyout
8:58PM ( 5 days ago )
Rangers introduce Lynn, finalize $30M, 3-year deal
Free agent right-hander Lance Lynn has finalized a $30 million, three-year contract with the Texas Rangers
8:54PM ( 5 days ago )
Twins to retire Mauer's No 7 jersey next season
Twins to retire Mauer's No 7 jersey next season, the 8th person in team history with the honor
6:20PM ( 5 days ago )
AP Sports - Major League Baseball
The Latest: Demaryius Thomas out with right leg injury
The Latest: Houston Texans wide receiver Demaryius Thomas injures his right leg.
3:42PM ( 16 hours ago )
The Latest: Cousins' Hail Mary to Rodolph sparks Vikings
The Latest:
3:09PM ( 16 hours ago )
The Latest: Eagles' Zach Ertz sets record for catches
The Latest:.
2:57PM ( 16 hours ago )
AP Sports - NFL
Sudan soccer fans clash with police, call on Bashir to leave
Sudanese soccer fans call on Bashir to step down, clash with police
7:38AM ( 9 minutes ago )
Cause of Indonesia tsunami pondered amid search for missing
Indonesian government workers and volunteers searched debris-strewn beaches for survivors and bodies, while families tried to identify their loved ones and grieved for the dead from a nighttime tsunami that struck beaches along an Indonesian strait
7:34AM ( 13 minutes ago )
The Latest: Searchers look for victims; tsunami toll now 280
Thousands of soldiers, police and government personnel as well as volunteers are working to find victims of an Indonesian tsunami that killed at least 280 people
6:50AM ( 56 minutes ago )
Pakistan's former PM sentenced to 7 years for corruption
A court in Pakistan has sentenced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to seven years in prison for corruption and acquitted him in a second case
6:24AM ( 1 hour ago )
A taste of home: Syrian TV-chef opens restaurant in Berlin
Syrian TV chef known as the 'queen of cooking' opens restaurant in Berlin hoping to provide a taste of home for the thousands of new arrivals who have fled the country's brutal civil war
6:07AM ( 1 hour ago )