For a team that started its third season suffering from an extended MLS Cup hangover, Atlanta United sure seems to have found its feet.
The defending league champion won the third trophy of its young existence — and its second in the last two weeks — by beating visiting Minnesota United 2-1 in Tuesday’s hard-fought Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final.
An own goal by Minnesota rookie defender Chase Gasper gave the hosts an early lead before much-maligned Argentine striker Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez doubled the Five Stripes’ advantage before the contest was 16 minutes old.
The Loons had chances to get back into the game later in the first half, and they converted one moments into the second half via Robin Lod to make the finish interesting. But it wasn’t enough in the end as Atlanta — which beat Mexican power Club America in the Campeones Cup final earlier this month — hoisted its latest piece of hardware. Here are three quick thoughts on the match.
Pity Martinez plays the hero
For most of his first five months in MLS, the 2018 South American player of the year with Buenos Aires giant River Plate has struggled to live up to the billing. The reasons are many: United as a whole sputtered out of the gates under new coach Frank de Boer, and the methodical, cerebral Martinez is stylistically opposite of all-out attacking dynamo Miguel Almiron, the man he replaced in Georgia.
Martinez has managed just three league goals this season. He has clashed with de Boer on more than one occasion after being substituted out of matches. But he played the hero on Tuesday, banging home the eventual Cup-winning goal after being picked out by Justin Meram at the top of the box:
It was a cathartic goal for Martinez, if his celebration was anything to go by. It could also restore confidence as the Eastern Conference leaders try to hold off the Philadelphia Union and New York City FC down the stretch and enter the playoffs on a high note. If Martinez stays hot, he could be lifting yet another trophy before the 2019 season is said and done.
A missed opportunity for Minnesota United
The Loons were heavy underdogs heading into this one, and it looked like it could be a long night when Gasper defected a Leandro Gonzalez Pirez cross over keeper Vito Mannone and into his own net less than 10 minutes in:
Things got worse in a hurry when Martinez added Atlanta’s second. Slowly but surely, though, Minnesota began to work its way back into the tilt. Despite inexplicably leaving Colombian forward Darwin Quintero on the bench, Adrian Heath’s team found a lifeline on recent signing Lod’s goal, which came barely a minute after the intermission ended:
Atlanta then handed the Loons a gift when Gonzalez Pirez picked up a silly second yellow card with just over a quarter-hour to go. But with Quintero watching from the sideline, Minnesota couldn’t find the breakthrough that would’ve sent the match to extra time, with Ike Opara’s last-gasp effort sailing over the bar with seconds remaining.
A near-perfect advertisement for the U.S. Open Cup
Maybe it’s because both teams entered MLS as expansion sides just two years ago. Maybe it’s down to how much both sides matter in their respective cities. Whatever the reason, both teams — despite Heath’s personnel decisions — were clearly desperate to win this match.
That hasn’t always been the case in a competition that ranks a distant third behind MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield in terms of domestic priorities, with new international events against Liga MX squads threatening to push its status down even further.
Not on this night. An Open Cup final record crowd of 35,709 bought tickets to Tuesday’s decider, which was not included in Atlanta’s season ticket packages. That’s impressive. And the game itself exceeded expectations, with Minnesota pushing their free-spending counterparts right to the end.
It felt like a big-time match. It was. That’s a great sign for a historic, 105-year-old tournament that has the potential to raise its profile considerably in the years to come.
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