Minnesota United came one step from the U.S. Open Cup mountaintop, losing 2-1 to defending MLS champion Atlanta United in Tuesday’s final.
Now after such a climb, it must make sure there is no fall, not with seven games remaining in a competitive Western Conference playoff race in which it went from second place to fifth after last week’s loss at Sporting Kansas City.
The way to the playoffs for the first time in its first three MLS seasons continues Sunday night at LAFC, the league’s best team and runaway leaders in the West.
The Loons surrendered two goals in Tuesday’s first 16 minutes before newcomer Robin Lod’s goal two minutes into the second half made it a game. They had repeated chances late in the game to tie the score and send it to overtime and possibly penalty kicks. Kevin Molino, Chase Gasper, Ike Opara and lastly Michael Boxall all had prime second-half chances while Atlanta played a man short for the final 20 minutes because of defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez’s successive yellow cards.
“We’ve got some big games coming up, we can’t give ourselves that big a mountain to climb against teams that are vying for the playoffs,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “There’s three, four teams in and around us. They’re going to be tough games. We can’t give ourselves that much work to do.”
United has four days to train and travel to Los Angeles for Sunday’s game, then has another 10 days — with a friendly against Mexican club Pachuca in between — to “recharge the batteries” before it plays its next MLS game at Houston on Sept. 11. Four of its final seven games are away from Allianz Field, including its “Decision Day” season finale Oct. 6 at Seattle.
United goalkeeper Vito Mannone said his team must continue to do in this season’s final five weeks what it did Tuesday in Atlanta. It persevered even after it trailed by two goals not long after an Open Cup final-record audience of 35,709 fans settled in their seats.
“We kept fighting as always,” Mannone said after Tuesday’s game. “We fought so hard every game. You can’t complain with the character of the team. That’s what we need to do from now to the end of the season. You’d like to win a final of course, but we have to be proud of what we’ve done. First final for this club is a massive achievement.
“Now there’s another achievement to get, which is the playoffs. We’ve got seven more finals that are going to be as hard as tonight. We’re going to have to stand tall.”
Minnesota United players walked somberly to their locker room after Tuesday’s game, each player grasping a runners-up medal awarded in a postgame ceremony while down the hall Atlanta players sprayed each other with champagne in their locker room lined with plastic for the occasion.
Rookie midfielder Hassani Dotson apologized to media members in a postgame interview because “I’m not my usual self” after such a loss. But the versatile player who was a surprise starter Tuesday said he isn’t worried about his team coming down from a Open Cup run. He was part of the first 11 on a night when United star and Open Cup leading goal-scorer Darwin Quintero was a second-half sub.
“We’ve all grown up playing in these types of matches at each level,” Dotson said after the game. “So give yourself the rest of the night to feel this way and tomorrow forget about it. Put it in the past and get ready for LAFC.”