The early- and midseason struggles of Atlanta United sure seem like a thing of the past now.
For the third time in less than nine months, the Five Stripes lifted a trophy on their home turf by capturing the 2019 U.S. Open Cup title with a 2-1 win over Minnesota United Tuesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This is a far different achievement than the MLS Cup triumph over Portland last December and the thrilling win over Club America in the Campeones Cup two weeks ago. The former was with a different team, one that had been on a different journey all to its own with a different coach and a different talisman. The latter was a one-off win in a match created, if we're being honest, largely for marketing purposes and one that Atlanta was able to participate in thanks to the achievement of its earlier incarnation.
The 106th U.S. Open Cup title, however, unequivocally belongs to this group. Pity Martinez, the much-maligned Argentine superstar who has butted heads with first-year manager Frank de Boer, set up a goal and scored one of his own in the opening 16 minutes to send Atlanta on its way.
Atlanta did concede to recent Minnesota signing Robin Lod just over a minute into the second half and had to overcome a red card to Leandro Gonzalez Pirez in the 74th minute (after two yellows in rapid succession) to add some uncertainty to the equation, but saw out the result–surviving a stoppage-time scare in the form of a missed Michael Boxall sitter–in front of an Open Cup final record crowd of 35,709.
Atlanta United and Minnesota United both entered MLS at the same time. Their paths have been divergent, though. While Atlanta opted for the immediate splash, the big spending and the luxury accommodations, Minnesota built more methodically. The Loons' braintrust promised a three-year pathway to success, by which time its sparkling new stadium would be built and the results would follow. That's mostly been the case. Minnesota, after two putrid years, has been a strong side in 2019, especially at Allianz Field, where it's lost just once in 14 matches thus far. It's opened up the wallet and begun to invest more in its on-field product than ever before.
The problem in this particular matchup is that Atlanta's been doing it since Day 1.
Atlanta's third season hasn't always been a smooth ride, with a lack of pity parties from its opponents and Pity Parties in its own locker room along the way, but now, its momentum is unmistakable. In the league, it's won six of its past seven matches, with the lone loss a 4-3 thriller at runaway Supporters' Shield leader LAFC. It was in that game that Martinez was subbed out right before the hour mark amid a comeback attempt and wouldn't even look at de Boer, let alone acknowledge his maneuver. The match seemed to be the breaking point for Martinez, a record signing from River Plate who, a day after Atlanta captured MLS Cup was helping his side beat rival Boca Juniors for the Copa Libertadores title at Real Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. Frustration didn't fester, though, and Atlanta went on to win its next four league games to move back atop the Eastern Conference all while lifting the Campeones Cup and now the U.S. Open Cup trophies.
This competition is now an ideal dress rehearsal for the MLS playoffs, as they're currently constituted. Both are purely single-elimination cup competitions, and the ability to navigate through those is a skill, no matter if some of the opponents are lower-division sides like the Charleston Battery or Saint Louis FC. Atlanta has that skill, and while LAFC may be everyone's favorite to win it all and would host MLS Cup should it reach the final, there's no denying Atlanta–and this group in particular–has found the mojo needed to go on a run to repeat.