ATLANTA – Temporarily blinded by such a big stage’s bright footlights and the gleam of an awaiting trophy, Minnesota United surrendered two goals in their first Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final’s opening 16 minutes and never quite recovered, losing 2-1 at Atlanta United on Tuesday night.
The Loons brought their entire office staff on one chartered flight and supporters on another in a traveling party that numbered at least 750 people and filled parts of three second-deck sections for the biggest game played in the team’s first three MLS seasons.
Afterward, their players trudged to their locker room while Atlanta players sprayed champagne each other just down the corridor. Each Loon held a runner-up medal awarded for a journey that included four consecutive victories in a knockout competition that started nearly a year ago with 178 competing U.S. pro and amateur teams. It ended with just two teams playing Tuesday before 35,709 spectators, an Open Cup final record.
When it was over, Atlanta United stood as survivors in a home it has lost just once this season -- and as winners of their second cup this month and their third since taking the MLS Cup home last December.
“It has been an excellent run,” Loons goalkeeper Vito Mannone said.
It ended Tuesday after they allowed a fluky own-goal with just 10 minutes gone and a second one six minutes later in which they allowed a speedy, talented and well-paid opponent too much room to operate, as they did for much of the first half.
Left-footed newcomer Robin Lod’s directed one-touch, right-foot shot off the left post and in two minutes into the second half put Minnesota United back into the game, but it never found the equalizer. Kevin Molino, Chase Gasper, Ike Opara and lastly Michael Boxall all had prime second-half chances to tie a game in which Atlanta played short a man for the final 15-plus minutes but either missed the net or were stopped by goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
“We should still be playing,” said Boxall, whose stoppage-time, point-blank volley rose over the crossbar. “The boys played their hearts out second half. It just hurts.”
That 16-minute start ultimately doomed the Loons. Rookie defender Gasper chased down Atlanta’s Leandro Gonzalez Pirez on the run near the right goal line and got his cleats on an attempted crossing pass in the 10th minute. His valient effort only served to send the ball spinning wildly up and over Mannone’s outstretched hands and under the crossbar just barely in the goal.
“The ball started to spin on top of me,” Mannone said. “It’s the only place it can spin toward the goal. I tried to keep it out somehow, but I didn’t. It was a lucky moment for them and a little unlucky for us. We tried to stay in the game. Second half was certainly ours.”
Loons right back Romain Metanire allowed midfielder Justin Meram too much time and space to operate on the left wing in the 16th minute and Atlanta Pita Martinez found a seam between defenders Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso for a 10-yard, left-footed shot that scored. Striker Josef Martinez had two first-half goals wiped away because of off-sides calls, too.
“You can’t come into a place like this and go 2-nil down,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said. “Our players’ response after that was terrific. It shows you how far we’ve come in the last year or so, that we’ve come in here and feel really disappointed we didn’t take something from the game…It’s the first time we’ve come here and had as many chances as we had tonight.”
They left disappointed, carrying their medals to a late-night plane chartered just for the occasion.
“Everybody’s different,” said Heath, who won one F.A. Cup final and lost two when he played in England. “I don’t know where mine are, I know that much.”