“I am [expletive] happy,” Josef Martínez said, in English, after the game. “We are the [expletive] champions.”
The crowd of 35,709 set an attendance record for an Open Cup final. It also was the lowest-ever announced attendance for an Atlanta game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Five Stripes average 53,611 at home in Major League Soccer play this season.
“It’s always nice to win trophies,” Atlanta manager Frank de Boer said in his post-game press conference. “That’s why you start playing soccer, because you love it, but also because you want to win. Today we achieved something very beautiful for the club, for the players.
“Of course we have a short history as Atlanta United. To win already in the third year the U.S. Open Cup is a fantastic achievement.”
Josef Martínez thought he opened the scoring in the second minute, but the offside flag was up. Atlanta took the lead, however, nine minutes later when Loons defender Chase Gasper deflected a Leandro González-Pírez cross into the net. Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez played a nice through-ball that released González-Pírez to the end line. Gasper got a piece of the center back’s cross, and Minnesota goalkeeper Vito Mannone could not palm it over the bar.
The Loons should have equalized a minute later off a Jan Gregus free kick, but Michael Boxall put his free header over the bar. The Five Stripes quickly made Minnesota pay. Justin Meram dribbled down on Romain Métanire and played a low square ball. Pity Martínez smashed a first-time finish from the center of the penalty area to double Atlanta’s lead in the 16th minute.
Minnesota increased its intensity upon falling two goals behind, and Josef Martínez was slow to get up after absorbing a hard challenge from Ike Opara in the 25th minute. It was a dangerous moment for the Minnesota center back, as Martínez was running behind the Loons’ defense. Any foul would have warranted a red card for denial of a goal scoring opportunity, but referee Allen Chapmen ruled the contact was shoulder-to-shoulder. It appeared Opara wanted to send a message after two of his mistakes led to Josef Martínez goals when these teams met in May.
“The first one was a soft goal to concede, and then the second one, we didn’t have guys in the right spots,” Minnesota manager Adrian Heath said. “After that, the response was good.”
Opara nearly scored off a corner in the 33rd minute, but his header was inches wide. Brad Guzan dove and would not have reached the shot. The Loons pulled a goal back two minutes after halftime. Robin Lod redirected a Kevin Molina cut back across his body, and the ball bounced in off Guzan’s far post.
“Suddenly, they are into the game, and they’re going to believe that there’s something more to gain,” de Boer said. “We worked very hard.”
Josef Martínez was denied by the offside flag again in the 53rd minute, and his 56th minute effort was hit right at Mannone from close range.
Atlanta, playing its seventh game in the month of August, looked sluggish even when it led by two goals.
“It’s tough,” Julian Gressel told reporters. “I haven’t really felt fresh in the last month, but this definitely feels good. My legs actually feel pretty good right now. It obviously feels good to win trophies.”
González-Pírez made life difficult for the Five Stripes in the final 20 minutes. He received a caution for dissent following a foul in the 71st and picked up a second yellow three minutes later for a cynical pull back on Kevin Molino. Franco Escobar subbed on for Pity Martínez, and Atlanta settled into a low block to see out the game.
“It’s always difficult [to deal with a red card],” de Boer said. “We played the same system — 5-3-1 — at that moment. Then it’s not 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 or something like that. Then it’s really five defenders and three midfielders and one on top. It was surviving. … It was nerve-wracking for everyone, I think.”
Minnesota dominated possession late and created a number of half-chances. Boxall sent a point-blank shot well over in stoppage time. But the Loons could not find a second goal.
“Chaos,” Guzan said of the game’s final stanza. “Leandro made it interesting for us. I don’t know if it’s a foul on the first one, to be honest, but regardless, to concede so early in the second half, we were right up against it. We gave them a lot of belief, a lot of hope. We had a chance or two ourselves — couldn’t find the third one — but ultimately we had done enough and we held on.”
In addition to claiming the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophy, Atlanta qualified for the 2020 Concacaf Champions League.
“I think that’s the one game I’d like to have back this year, is the [Champions League game] at Monterrey,” Gressel said. “I think that we came out of that not as we would have liked. … It’s nice to be in that competition again. A goal of mine is to play in the [Club World Cup], and that gets you there with a win in the Concacaf Champions League.”
The Five Stripes have won all three finals they have played, and each has come in their home stadium. Sipping a Bud Light and drenched in champagne, Josef Martínez spoke on Mercedes-Benz Stadium magic — and the magic his team provides Atlanta.
“Playing in this stadium is a dream,” the Venezuela international said through an interpreter. “Every time I drive here, I get goosebumps. For me, playing here is the best thing that’s happened to me. I have to thank the fans. I love the people here. For me, this is the best stadium in the world. For me, the best city. Every time I walk in the street, the people treat me with a lot of affection, and you can’t buy that. I always say it: you can’t buy that. I’m not leaving here until my time is up.
“But the affection the people show me, this team, I don’t think this city has another team. We’re the only team winning, and everyone has to respect us. We’re the champions here, and we need a little more respect.”