3’s the charm: Atlanta United adds to its trophy haul

<p>
              Atlanta United players celebrate with the trophy after defeating Minnesota United 2-1 the U.S. Open Cup soccer final Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
            </p>

ATLANTA (AP) — The players whooped it up. The champagne flowed. In the midst of it all, another trophy sat in the middle of the locker room.

When Atlanta United began play just three seasons ago, this is exactly what they had in mind.

Winning championships.

Lots of them.

“The biggest clubs in the world win trophies,” said midfielder Julian Gressel, his hair soaked by the increasingly familiar dousing of bubbly.

Completing its own version of the treble, Atlanta captured its third title in less than nine months, beating Minnesota United 2-1 in the U.S. Open Cup final Tuesday night.

The trophy haul began last December when United won the MLS Cup. Two weeks ago, they defeated Mexican powerhouse Club America to claim the Campeones Cup. And now, they’ve come out on top in the country’s 105-year-old national cup competition.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a Super Cup, if it’s a Campeones Cup, if it’s an Open Cup, whatever it is,” Gressel said. “Within a year, we’ve obviously won three. We’d like to continue that, because that’s what big clubs do. We definitely see ourselves as a big club.”

This one felt especially satisfying because the U.S. Open Cup comes with an additional prize: a return trip to the CONCACAF Champions League in 2020, giving United a chance to make up for this year’s disappointing performance.

Atlanta was ousted in the quarterfinals by Monterrey after losing the opening leg 3-0 in Mexico. The Liga MX team went on to claim the title, denying United a shot at winning an actual continental treble.

Also, the Champions League winner gets a spot in FIFA’s Club World Cup.

“The one game I would like to have back this year is the one at Monterrey,” Gressel conceded. “It’s nice to be in that competition again. It’s definitely a goal of mine to play in the club world championships.”

A more pressing goal for Atlanta United is defending its MLS Cup title.

After a sluggish start under first-year coach Frank de Boer, United appear to be hitting their stride. Atlanta is sitting atop the table in the Eastern Conference and in the midst of a seven-game winning streak across all competitions.

“Listen, we’ve got one more to go,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “It’s not feeling satisfied, if that makes sense. It’s a feeling of, yeah, we’ll enjoy this tonight, and we understand what it’s about to win trophies and win big tournaments, but ultimately there’s a big one in a few months.”

For sure, this celebration won’t last long.

Atlanta United has only three days to prepare for a road game against the Philadelphia Union with first place on the line.

“We’ve got a big game Saturday,” Guzan said. “We’ve got to make sure mentally we recharge the batteries and find a way to go up there and put together a performance that allows us to get a result.”

The U.S. Open Cup final was a matchup between clubs that entered Major League Soccer together as expansion franchises in 2017.

Atlanta United quickly became the league’s most talked-about franchise, making the playoffs their first season and claiming the championship in Year 2 while breaking nearly all league attendance records. Even though the turnout for Tuesday’s game (35,709) was the smallest of the season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it still set a record for a U.S. Open Cup final.

Minnesota United, on the other hand, struggled through their first two seasons before moving into a new stadium and making a major leap forward in 2019. They are fifth in the tightly-bunched Western Conference and positioned to make their first postseason appearance.

It looked like an Atlanta blowout in the early going. A pinpoint pass by Pity Martinez through two defenders set up an own-goal by Minnesota, as the ball deflected high in the air and just beyond the reach of leaping goalkeeper Vito Mannone. Martinez scored a goal of his own in the 16th minute, flicking one in off a pass from Justin Meram.

But Minnesota fought back. Robin Lod scored just 2 minutes into the second half, and the visiting team really turned up the pressure after Atlanta’s Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was sent off in the 74th after picking up his second yellow card. With a man advantage, Minnesota had several good chances at the tying goal.

In the end, Atlanta held on.

It was time for another trophy presentation, something that is becoming quite familiar for this club.

“Before the game, we talked again about being a winning club, winning trophies, being a big club,” Guzan said. “That’s what it’s about.”