Each has taken its own road there, but on Tuesday, two Uniteds nonetheless will reach the same place: the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final.
Expansion teams Atlanta United and Minnesota United both began Major League Soccer play in 2017 and immediately went their separate ways.
Backed by the fortune of NFL Atlanta Falcons owner and Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, Atlanta United took the fast track. It paid MLS record transfer fees and broke league attendance records playing in massive, beautiful new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, owned by the state of Georgia and operated by Blank’s Falcons/United ownership group.
Atlanta United made the playoffs its first season and won an MLS championship in its second, drawing more than 73,000 fans for its title-game 2-0 victory over Portland. Last week, it added its second trophy, defeating the Mexican league champions in the second annual Campeones Cup.
It paid an $8.5 million transfer fee in 2016 to acquire star Miguel Almiron and $5 million for Josef Martinez. The next year, it paid $15 million for Ezequiel Barco. When it flipped Almiron for $27 million to the Premier League’s Newcastle after last season, Atlanta simply paid $15 million to add Pity Martinez.
Minnesota United suffered through two lousy, losing seasons that included a snowy 6-1 loss to Atlanta in the Loons’ 2017 home debut at temporary home TCF Bank Stadium. They didn’t add their first “designated player” until early last season while they aimed a three-year plan to coincide with the opening in April of $250 million Allianz Field that ownership funded.
On Tuesday, the two teams will play in Atlanta for a trophy contested by pro and amateur U.S. teams alike since 1914. The Loons won there 3-2 late in their inaugural season and lost there 3-0 in May when they gave up two late goals.
Through all the losses and goals surrendered those first two seasons, Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath urged critics to withhold judgment until that third season, when the stadium opened and the roster was properly fortified.
Now in Year 3, the Loons have recorded nine shutouts, reached second place in the Western Conference and lost just twice in MLS and Open Cup play since June 8. The team added five new starters over the winter, including MLS veterans Ozzie Alonso and Ike Opara. More recently, it has invested in Uruguayan young designated player Thomas Chacon and Finnish national-team player Robin Lod, to name two, in the summer transfer window.
They’re also playing to put the first trophy in its cabinet after stringing together four U.S. Open Cup victories without a loss, including a 2-1 home victory over Portland in the semifinals.
“It means we’re getting better,” coach Adrian Heath said. “That’s always got to be the plan. No crazy decisions, let’s keep moving forward, getting better each time we can. If you look at each window, I think we’ve gotten better. We’ve certainly gotten better this window. But we can’t stand still because everybody else is improving. With what we’re doing and believe in what we’re doing, we’ll be fine.”
When his team defeated the Timbers on Mason Toye’s second-half goal, Heath dryly suggested mls.com staff — presumably slow to reflect Minnesota United’s improvement in their regular power rankings — would be in mourning over the Loons reaching the Cup final.
He also admitted that Aug. 7 night he is tired of being compared to Atlanta, even though the two teams probably always will be linked because they came into MLS the same season.
“I am because it’s nice when you spend $70 million or whatever it is on your team,” Heath said. “You don’t have to build a stadium, that’s nice. I don’t know what mls.com is going to say, Minnesota is in the final …
“Our team is unrecognizable to what we were. We know that. That’s gone. We can’t control what it was. What we can control is the demands we put on this group of players.”
Whichever way it came, Opara said a victory Tuesday would elevate his team’s reputation around the league and the world.
“It would, just based off how the first two years of MLS went,” Opara said. “If you said we’d win a trophy in our third year — regardless of what trophy it would have been — we would have jumped for joy and taken it. Challenging for trophies is the first step to building a consistently competitive franchise. We’ve got our first opportunity Tuesday.”