It was clear that each club had a different strategy on how they’d build their franchise. Atlanta went to South America, acquiring stars such as Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Tito Villalba and Ezequiel Barco en route to lifting the 2018 MLS Cup. Minnesota, conversely, struggled until the opening of Allianz Field this past April, and have since then climbed into the upper echelon of the Western Conference.
Now, the expansion siblings are on a collision course in the 2019 U.S. Open Cup final. Tuesday evening's match (8 pm ET | ESPN+) will determine who raises one of North American soccer's oldest trophies at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It’s one game, [so] we detach ourselves from the league and we hope to have a good result against a really good team,” goalkeeper Vito Mannone said. “We love to play good teams like Atlanta. They make it a challenge, but we are up for a challenge.
“We are going into the lion cage. We are away from home, but [the expected 500-plus traveling supporters], they will give us the biggest boost.”
The clubs have met four times prior, with Atlanta holding a 3-1 record and plus-eight goal differential. The Five Stripes defeated the Loons 3-0 earlier this season, but head coach Adrian Heath feels that scoreline didn’t do the game justice.
“They scored twice late in the game on defensive mistakes, I don’t think that will happen again,” Heath said. “We’ve improved a lot from the last time we played them, and I think everyone in this league knows that. There’s no denying how quality of a side they are, but we’re a quality side, too.”
Those two mistakes were both committed by offseason acquisition Ike Opara, the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year. Despite that, Opara has been the driving force behind Minnesota’s defensive turnaround after leaking a combined 141 goals over their first two seasons in MLS.
To avoid more errors, the Loons will have to key in on Martinez, the scorer of both of those goals on May 29. The Venezuelan has now scored in 12 straight league matches and is up to 22 goals on the year.
“We know how strong and physical of a player he is; he’s beaten us this season twice,” defender Michael Boxall said. “I think we all realize how important he is to the team’s success, so if we play strong and together and we play the way we want to, I think there is a good chance we could do something special.”
The Loons have always felt unfairly compared to the Five Stripes, but Minnesota see the Open Cup final as an opportunity to change that, to mark their own path.
“I love the opportunity to go in there and take it to them,” winger Ethan Finlay said. “There’s a lot of expectations with them being the home team, and I’m totally fine with being the underdog if that’s the role we’re given. I think there’s a lot of guys in this locker room who agree with that.
“We’ll take care of business on the field and I think the environment is only going to help with that. We’re embracing our role. They’re not going to see what’s coming."