On a tense Aug. 27 night, in front of a record-breaking crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a 10-man Atlanta United team scored early and held on for a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United to win their first ever U.S. Open Cup. With the Campeones Cup victory over Club America on Aug. 14, Atlanta United now has two trophies this season, automatically qualifying the team for the elite CONCACAF Champions League in 2020. As records are broken and trophies stack up, the Atlanta United tale grows larger and more fabled by the minute.
Atlanta United commanded the first 20 minutes of the game, scoring from an unconventional, tight angle in the 10th minute. In attack, midfielder Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez showed his class with a precise pass behind the Minnesota defense to defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Despite always lining up as a central defender, Gonzalez Pirez forced a mistake from Minnesota defender Chase Gasper, who deflected the ball into his own goal.
In the 15th minute, Atlanta doubled their advantage courtesy of a pinpoint pass from forward Justin Meram to Martinez. Meram, signed from Columbus Crew prior to this season, has proven to be a quality addition to this talented Atlanta team after nailing a game-winning curling long-range shot against Montreal in June.
Atlanta almost grabbed their third goal in the 20th minute, but Minnesota goalkeeper Vito Mannone nudged a curling shot from forward Ezequiel Barco just past the post. Mannone kept Minnesota in the game with another huge save in the 55th minute from forward Josef Martinez’s shot from six yards out.
But despite the win, to say this match was easy would be a lie. Atlanta fans collectively chanted “Ref, you suck!” throughout the match, which only intensified as referee Alan Chapman brandished the yellow card twice in the span of a few minutes to send off Gonzalez Pirez. While both fouls were warranted, the decision to present the cards without any warnings did not help Chapman’s case.
Following the ejection, Atlanta had to defend their lead and barely escaped with the win. Minnesota, fifth in the Western Conference (out of 12 teams), almost forced extra time. But they wasted a golden opportunity to snatch an equalizer when defender Michael Boxall smashed his shot just a few feet over the crossbar in the 93rd minute.
Aside from winning another accolade and bragging rights, Atlanta can take a lot of positives from this result. Firstly, Atlanta showed huge grit and resilience to grind out the win, especially after going down one player, which only ramped up the pressure of the cup final.
“At that moment, you have to really play as a team and fight as a team,” said Head Coach Frank de Boer after the game. “This helps for the team spirit. Of course, winning is always fun, especially when you do it this way.”
Secondly, the team’s younger players show great promise, and de Boer has the confidence to play the kids in high-profile games. Defender Miles Robinson started the game, throwing veteran defender Michael Parkhurst’s previously assured spot into question and adding healthy competition to the team. Moreover, Robinson’s incredibly consistent performances have earned him his first call-up to the U.S. men’s national team for upcoming friendlies against elite teams Mexico (managed by former Atlanta United Head Coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino) and Uruguay. Additionally, Barco continued to perform well on the wing as he narrowly missed a goal.
Lastly, Pity Martinez continued to demonstrate that a post-Miguel Almiron Atlanta is just as threatening in attack, even though Almiron was a vital cog in the Atlanta United attacking machine from last season. The fans’ worries that Atlanta would not recover from losing arguably their most influential player will be relieved with persistent glowing performances from Pity Martinez, the Argentine maestro.
With the latest piece of silverware joining the jam-packed Atlanta trophy case, de Boer was very pleased with the result.
“I think that is why you start playing soccer, because you love it, but also because you want to win,” de Boer said. “And today, we achieved something very beautiful for the club and for the players. Of course, we have a short history as Atlanta United FC, but to win the U.S. Open Cup in our third year is a fantastic achievement.”
Including MLS games, Atlanta United have now won seven in a row, while the all-important MLS Cup and Community Shield seem inevitable to the reigning champions who sit atop the Eastern Conference standings.