ATLANTA — For all their tactical and technical superiority over the opening 45 minutes, Atlanta United's 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final ultimately came down to intestinal fortitude. In that department, the Loons gave their former MLS expansion siblings all they could handle.
It was a role reversal from what Atlanta had grown accustomed to in the two previous finals they had contested at Mercedes-Benz Stadium over the past year.
Against the Portland Timbers in last year’s MLS Cup and Club America in the Campeones Cup just two weeks ago, they had cruised in the last 10 minutes.
Pure joy— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) August 28, 2019
The moment the final whistle blew 🎥 pic.twitter.com/nJ4a2xa6Lm
However, on Tuesday they were already gripping a one-goal lead firmly when Leandro Gonzalez Pirez committed his second cautionable offense and was sent off by referee Allen Chapman in the 74th minute.
“At that moment you have to really play as a team and fight as a team. This helps for the team spirit,” said an audibly drained Atlanta manager Frank de Boer. “Of course, winning is always fun, especially when you do it this way at the end. It helps. … You see that they want to fight for each other. Again, good results help, but I have the feeling when I see them in training, they’re really up for it.”
Loons coach Adrian Heath admitted that his team dug themselves an early hole, but he never felt his team was out of the game — and he was right. Minnesota poured on the pressure late, whipping crosses into the box and forcing undermanned Atlanta to defend for their lives.
Suddenly, the attacking, dynamic version of Atlanta was put on the shelf and Minnesota forced them to win a different way — with guts.
Wasn’t meant to be...but our heads are up! A massive thank you to the #mnufc supporters that traveled all the way down for this one and making this a memorable experience despite the loss. @MNDarkClouds @TrueNorthElite we’ll be back soon 🤟🏿— Ike Opara (@ikeopara) August 28, 2019
“I can’t fault the guys for the effort that they put in to try and get us back on level terms,” Heath said. “We got the goal and I thought the initiative was with us. It was the first time we’ve come here and had as many chances as we had tonight. Even after they scored the goal, [Michael] Boxall has a free header from eight yards out and Mason [Toye] had a couple. You look at the second half and we had another three or four really good chances.”
Minnesota have generally had rotten luck against Atlanta since they entered the league together in 2017, and especially this year, having also lost 3-0 at MBS in the league in May. Heath decided to change things up this time, leaving some of his more dynamic attacking options — among them Darwin Quintero, Ethan Finley and Abu Danladi — off the bench.
“We should still be playing,” Boxall said afterward. “Everyone worked their [tails] off to get us in that position and it just doesn’t go away. Obviously, we had a few other chances there and it just hurts to let the boys down. We will refocus and lock down our playoff spot now.”