A century-old tournament that began with 84 teams across half-a-dozen tiers on the American soccer pyramid and unfolded over seven rounds of nerve-jangling knockout play has reached its peak.
With their 2-0 win over Orlando City at Exploria Stadium on Tuesday, Atlanta United will host Minnesota United – who edged the Portland Timbers 2-1 at Allianz Field Wednesday night – in the 2-19 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final, set for Aug. 27 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It’s the first-ever Open Cup final for both teams, who share more than just a common moniker. The Five Stripes and Loons are also 2017 expansion siblings who, despite taking very different paths to MLS, were inevitably and to some extent unfairly compared throughout their first two years in the league.
Minnesota took a long and winding journey to the top flight, their cash-strapped precursors Minnesota Thunder, NSC Minnesota and Minnesota Stars FC scrapping for survival over many years in the lower divisions before MNUFC found stability and success, rising to MLS via the new North American Soccer League and finally moving into their own gorgeous, soccer-specific home earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Atlanta were born as an expansion project, MLS entrusting owner Arthur Blank to find the winning formula despite his city’s uneven soccer history through the decades. And Blank exceeded all expectations, sparing no expense and acquiring some of the top coaching and playing talent in league history to hit the ground running, a rapid climb culminating in last year’s MLS Cup triumph in front of a massive home crowd at the awe-inspiring MBS.
Memorably, ATLUTD served notice of their exceptionality with a stunning 6-1 rout of the Loons in frigid whiteout conditions at TCF Bank Stadium on March 12, 2017, Minnesota’s first MLS home game. As a snowstorm raged, Josef Martinez provided an early glimpse of his quality with a hat trick and the northerners saw many of their best-laid plans for their debut campaign go up in smoke.
Fast-forward two years, and the gap between the two clubs has tightened considerably, even if ATL still enjoy a 3-1 lead in their all-time series and won their most recent meeting, a 3-0 victory at MBS on May 29.
MNUFC stunned the Five Stripes in their first-ever visit to the hulking retractable-roof facility, a comeback 3-2 upset on Oct. 3, 2017 fueled by injury-time goals from Christian Ramirez and Kevin Molino that took a measure of revenge for their snowy humbling earlier that season.
Both teams currently occupy second place in their respective conferences and are on course for playoff qualification. Though Atlanta have won three of their last four in the league, Minnesota are even hotter: The Loons haven't lost since June 8, embarking on a 5-0-2 run in MLS action in which they’ve scored 16 goals and conceded just five.
There should be plenty of starpower on the MBS turf come Aug. 27, with the likes of Josef and Pity Martinez and Darwin Quintero facing off in front of what could be another record crowd in The A. ATLUTD set an Open Cup attendance record of 41,012 spectators in a round-of-16 match vs. the Chicago Fire last year (though the Fire won the match) and will likely aim to smash both that mark and the current all-time mark for USOC finals, set when the Seattle Sounders hosted, and won, the 2011 title bout before 35,615 fans at CenturyLink Field.