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Atlanta United eager for another shot at Concacaf Champions League

A win in the U.S. Open Cup final gives the Five Stripes a second chance in the continental competition.

Aug 27, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United fans in the supporter section react after Atlanta defeated the Minnesota United to capture the U. S. Open Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
Aug 27, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United fans in the supporter section react after Atlanta defeated the Minnesota United to capture the U. S. Open Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — Along with another piece of silverware, Atlanta United’s 2-1 win over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final clinched a berth for the club in the 2020 Concacaf Champions League. 

“That is something very important, and we want to achieve every season, and now, we are ready to achieve this,” manager Frank de Boer said of the qualification late Tuesday night. “Besides winning the U.S. Open Cup, we love to compete to be the best team, and we showed already in the [Campeones] Cup, and now we want to do it from the start in the Concacaf Champions League. It’s good for Atlanta United, it’s good for MLS, and we want to be prepared. We already had the experience this year, so hopefully, we can do better next season.”

Atlanta made its Champions League debut earlier this season, bowing out in the quarterfinals 3-1 on aggregate to eventual winner Monterrey. The Five Stripes lost 3-0 at Los Rayados, conceding twice in the final 10 minutes of the first leg, before winning 1-0 in the second leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The tournament kicked off Atlanta’s 2019 season, and it forced the team to play a congested schedule of tournament and Major League Soccer regular-season games while adjusting to a new manager and a new No. 10, Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez, who replaced Miguel Almirón. Club president Darren Eales often said the goal was to win Champions League — a feat no MLS team has achieved — but in hindsight, considering the circumstances, it was too big an ask.

“Listen, this year going into the Champions League, on the back of MLS Cup — short rest, this and that, whatever, new manager changes, we certainly weren’t at our best at the beginning of the year,” Brad Guzan told reporters after the win over Minnesota. “So, now, to have a second go at it, you know, we want to try and show that we can compete with the best in the region. I think Champions League obviously allows us that opportunity.

“We’re certainly better than what we showed this year in Champions League, and so I think next year could be potentially a different showing if we make sure we get off to a good start.”

Julian Gressel called the loss at Monterrey “the one game I regret” this season and lamented that he was out injured. Should Atlanta win in 2020, the Five Stripes would advance to the Club World Cup in December, a competition among each FIFA continental champion. Gressel said that achievement is one of his professional goals.

For Josef Martínez, qualifying for the Champions League means another opportunity to win something, and Martínez wants to win everything.

“We have to win every tournament that we play in,” he said in a champagne-soaked Atlanta locker room Tuesday. “When one plays in Concacaf, a lot of people aren’t interested in that, but we are very interested. We have to win everything, every game, every final, whatever it is. We have to play to win.”

Nagbe, Remedi dominated midfield vs. Minnesota

Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi's combined chalkboard vs. Minnesota United. (MLS Soccer)

Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi’s combined chalkboard vs. Minnesota United. (MLS Soccer)

Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi did not create any chances against Minnesota, and Nagbe took just one blocked shot in the 34th minute. But as is often the case, the central midfielders were the unsung heroes of Atlanta’s Open Cup triumph.

Nagbe and Remedi combined for nine recoveries, three clearances and two interceptions, with nearly all of that work coming in their defensive half. Together, the duo transitioned the Five Stripes from defense to attack and recycled possession with immaculate distribution: They were inaccurate on a minuscule five passes out of 78. Nagbe and Remedi drew five fouls while conceding one. Just look at their chalkboard to the left.

This play allowed Ezequiel Barco to stay higher up-field. Nagbe and Remedi struggled during Atlanta’s 1-0 win at Orlando City Friday, but they bounced back in a big way against the Loons. De Boer heaped praise on his midfielders.

“I think with the heat [at Orlando], they were tired,” the manager said. “The do a lot of dirty work in this environment. They can do a little more indoors. It also depends how the opponent plays. [Minnesota was] sitting a little deeper and we could build up from behind. If we lost a ball, we could directly press them. There was nothing going on at that moment.

“I think they played a fantastic role today. [Minnesota] decided to play a little bit more defensive and wait for a counter attack to see how we solve those problems. It was great to see. I really had the feeling that we could have made it 3-0.”

Pity Martínez is a big-game player

Pity Martínez has generated criticism from Atlanta fans and Atlanta’s manager with sub-par play at times this season. But in Atlanta’s biggest games, the former River Plate star has risen to the occasion. Some of El Pity’s best performances have come against the likes of Monterrey, Club América, New York City FC and, now, Minnesota in the Open Cup final. It is easy to understand how the player has racked up 11 trophies in his professional career.

Pity Martínez did not receive credit for a chance created on Minnesota’s own goal, but he did create the play with a perfect through-ball to Leandro González-Pírez, threading the needle between two defenders.

The Argentine scored Atlanta’s decisive goal six minutes later. Upon first glance, the strike could be mistaken for a relatively simple finish, but it was not. Pity Martínez, at a full sprint, had to reach back to connect with the ball and keep his shot under the bar while still generating enough power to beat Vito Mannone. He made it look easy.

Pity Martínez likely will frustrate again during Atlanta’s final regular-season stretch. He also is a sure bet to raise his level during the MLS Cup playoffs. When he is at his best, El Pity is a match-winner for Atlanta. 

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