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US Open Cup final another chance for Atlanta United to prove ‘big club’ status

The Five Stripes are playing for their third trophy in less than 10 months.

Aug 14, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) holds the trophy after Atlanta captured the Campeones Cup by defeating Club America at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
Aug 14, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) holds the trophy after Atlanta captured the Campeones Cup by defeating Club America at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

MARIETTA, Ga. — For the second time in two weeks, Atlanta United can hoist silverware at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Five Stripes meet Minnesota United Tuesday night in the U.S. Open Cup final. Frank de Boer and his players have another chance to make good on the club’s mission statement of winning every trophy available.

“That’s our standard as Atlanta United,” de Boer said Monday at the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground. “[Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra] started this because they want it to be a major impact on MLS. They already did it. They want to continue like that. That’s winning two-to-three titles a season. That is what you want as a club.”

Open Cup history dates to the 1913-14 season. A month and a half before Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Brooklyn Field Club won the competition that was then known as the National Challenge Cup. Bethlehem Steel dominated in the early days, claiming five titles between 1915 and 1926.

A team based on the West Coast won for the first time in 1958 when the Los Angeles Kickers bested Baltimore Pompei. (It was a big year for sports in LA; the Dodgers played their first game in Southern California six weeks prior to the Kickers’ win.)

In 1999, the Rochester Rhinos became the last team outside Major League Soccer to triumph. Since MLS launched in 1996, the Chicago Fire, Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City each have won four Open Cup titles.

Atlanta’s history is not so extensive. The Five Stripes played their first MLS game at Bobby Dodd Stadium more than a century after Brooklyn Field Club’s win at Coats Field in Pawtucket, R.I. What the club lacks in age, it is trying to overcome with quick results. Atlanta won its first MLS Cup in Year 2. It became the first MLS side to win Campeones Cup earlier this month and the first from MLS to beat Liga MX opposition in any final since 1998. American soccer’s oldest tournament is next on the list.

“It’d mean a great deal,” Julian Gressel said. “You want to be a winning club. I want to be a winning player. At the end of my career, I want to look back and be like, ‘Yeah, I’ve won a good amount of trophies.’ And you’re in a final, so no better opportunity than that to win the third one in three years for the club is huge.

“It’s the most historic one, obviously, in the U.S., so it’s one that you’d like to have. There’s some really good teams that have won that trophy before and we want to be one of those.”

Minnesota’s MLS history is just as short as Atlanta’s, but the Loons have not enjoyed the same success as their 2017 expansion siblings. While Atlanta immediately started work on its ultimate goal of becoming the biggest club in North America, Minnesota launched with a three-year plan. The ’17 and ’18 seasons were not kind. Minnesota finished each campaign far from the playoffs. The national headlines it made were for a historically poor defense, which shipped 141 goals in 68 games.

Now in Year Three, the Loons have emerged from the wilderness and are 90 minutes from their first trophy. Supporters at the shiny, new Allianz Field are singing “Wonderwall” more often.

“After two years [in MLS] at the beginning no one thought we would be in the position we are now,” winger Miguel Ibarra told MLSSoccer.com. “There have been a few games in the past couple of weeks that weren’t our best performances, but we don’t focus on those now, we are thinking about Tuesday and what we have to do to take home the Cup.”

Most of Atlanta’s roster has been there before: Of the 24 senior players who have regularly embedded with the first team, 18 were with the club for its MLS Cup run last season. Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez has been there before, too. El Pity won nine titles with Huracán and River Plate, and for his swan song in Argentina he led Los Millonarios to a Copa Libertadores final win over Boca Juniors. This “winning trophies” thing is a new experience for a select few in the red-and-black. The defeat of Club América afforded Mo Adams, Emerson Hyndman, Justin Meram, Dion Pereira and Florentin Pogba their first occasion as professionals to climb up on a stage and jump and shout as confetti rained down.

“I’ve been lucky in my career,” Pity Martínez through an interpreter said Monday. “I’ve been able to win a bunch of titles by 26, but Atlanta’s a young club. If it wants to be respected as a big club, we have to leave everything on the field and we have to win titles.

“Some of the guys haven’t won a title yet in their careers. Pogba, for example, [Campeones Cup] was his first championship. But I think the fact that we beat Club América, one of the best teams from [North] America, gives you confidence as a club.”

There is more than a title on the line Tuesday night. The winner will qualify for next season’s Concacaf Champions League, and Atlanta still hopes to be the first MLS team to win the continental tournament. The Five Stripes also could qualify by finishing atop the Eastern Conference table or by defending their MLS Cup title (qualifying via the Supporters’ Shield is out of reach at this point). 

“We always want to be part of Concacaf,” de Boer said. “That’s already settled if we win this one, so that’s important.”

Tuesday night will not be a cake walk for Atlanta — a final rarely is. Minnesota lost 3-0 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in May, but that score line flattered the hosts. The Five Stripes held a tenuous 1-0 lead until Josef Martínez scored twice in second-half stoppage time. The Loons are a better team now, and their improvement throughout the season has been similar to Atlanta’s, according to de Boer.

Minnesota center back Ike Opara, one of the best in MLS at his position, had a nightmare 90 minutes and uncharacteristically was involved in allowing all three Atlanta goals. Opara is unlikely to put forth that type of performance again.

“If you see him during the whole season, you know he’s a very good defender,” de Boer said. “You have games during the season like that. For a defender, [mistakes are always more costly] than for an attacker because it can result in a goal against you. I know that as a former defender. He’s a very important player for them. He’s always starting. With his presence, attacking-wise on set pieces, he’s a very good player.”

Atlanta looked tired in its most recent outing, a 1-0 league win at Orlando City Friday. That is no surprise. De Boer’s team is reaching the business end of the season, and it has raised its level of intensity for every game in recent weeks. Tired muscles and minds should not be a factor against Minnesota. Gressel has said before that playing with a trophy at stake erases fatigue, and he reiterated that point Monday.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” he told reporters. “It’s obviously been on my mind a little since we beat Orlando in the semifinal. You want to get yourself to those points in your life or in your career. You know that you don’t get too many opportunities to play in finals, so you have to not take them for granted and just get after it.

“I think finals, your head is in a different area. You just think about it differently, and your body also will just feel differently. I’ll be 100 percent up for it tomorrow and I’m already buzzing. I can’t wait to get out there tomorrow and play that game at home and hopefully win another trophy.”

Win or lose, Atlanta must quickly turn the page. The Five Stripes travel to Philadelphia for a colossal matchup Saturday night against the Union. The two are tied for first place in the East on 48 points. New York City FC is close behind with 47 points and a game in hand on Atlanta. But, any attention paid to regular-season concerns will have to wait.

“The objective is to win tomorrow,” Pity Martínez said the day before his latest final. “We have to show that Atlanta’s a big club, a club that teams have to respect. After that, we’ll recover and get ready for the week, but the goal is to be 100 percent prepared tomorrow.”

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