The two MLS expansion sides of 2017 met in the final for US Soccer’s oldest competition. The US Open Cup is an important competition in US soccer, as it’s the only open knock-out competition available. It also provides a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. This was a meeting between two contrasting sides in Minnesota United and Atlanta United.

Minnesota United and Atlanta United have taken different paths since they joined the MLS. Atlanta United is spending significant money in bringing in Designated Players while benefitting from public money to build their impressive Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Minnesota United, on the other hand, have been considerably more frugal with their spending, going through their first season with no high-earning Designated Players. Most of this was the result of them using private money to build the equally impressive, yet considerably smaller, Allianz Field.

While Atlanta United won the MLS Cup in 2018, Minnesota United are yet to make the playoffs. The contrasts between how these two clubs have been built made this an interesting final as it was an opportunity to compare the progress.

This tactical analysis will examine how Atlanta United was able to start the game in control, scoring two goals in the first 16 minutes. We’ll also look at the shift in tactics by Minnesota United in the second half to completely change the match. Finally, this analysis will see how Atlanta United was able to hold on for a 2-1 victory after Leandro González Pirez picked up a second yellow card in the 77th minute.

Lineup

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Starting line-up for Atlanta United vs Minnesota United

Atlanta United made no changes to the side that won 1-0 away against Orlando City on Friday. This was a surprising decision by Frank de Boer considering the heat and humidity in Florida that the team needed to deal with. The Dutchman decided to keep faith in the side that has been so lethal over the past six weeks, using the 3-5-2 system that has unlocked the dangerous attack for which the Five Stripes became famous for under Tata Martino.

Adrian Heath made two changes to his Minnesota United side that lost 1-0 away to Sporting Kansas City on Thursday. Ethan Finlay started on the bench while Wilfried Moimbé missed the squad completely due to a lower limit on international players. Kevin Molino and Osvaldo Alonso came into the starting line-up in their place. The surprise was Darwin Quintero starting the game on the bench, despite being the Loons’ highest-paid player and arguably most dangerous attacker.

Atlanta United dominate from the first whistle

Minnesota United have been much improved this season and are currently occupying one of the playoff slots in the MLS Western Conference, while Atlanta United started the season slowly under new manager Frank de Boer but have clicked in the past six weeks. They now sit in first place in the MLS Eastern Conference. The most important component in this run for the hosts has been their improved attack.

In attack, Atlanta United played with a front two of Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez and Josef Martinez, with Ezequiel Barco operating as a number 10 behind them. In transition, the pace and ability of this front three have caused problems. The three are willing to exchange positions and are very fluid on the attack. As we can see in the image below, Atlanta United is able to recover the ball and spring forward on the attack. As Barco goes forward, Josef Martinez and Pity Martinez split to offer passing options against only the two Minnesota United centre-backs.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Atlanta United’s front three (red) break forward in transition against the Minnesota United’s centre-backs (blue)

The fluidity and pace of these three South Americans going forward have made Atlanta United one of the most impressive MLS sides in transition, but another important aspect for Atlanta’s attack is the wingbacks. Julian Gressel on the right side and Justin Meram on the left are a key component in the build-up to the final third when Atlanta United have more sustained possession.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Passmap for Atlanta United

The front three of Atlanta United are an efficient unit going forward on transition, but they have struggled this season to make their presence known in the final third when not on the counterattack. In this situation, Josef Martinez plays alone up front, and Pity Martinez drops deeper to play alongside Barco, trying to get between the defensive lines. With this setup, it is left to the wing-backs to provide the width in attack. As a result, both wing-backs play high up the pitch, and this results in problems for the defence as they must deal with five attackers with their four defenders.

The Five Stripes attack with width

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
The advanced positioning of the Atlanta United’s wing-backs (highlight), Julian Gressel and Justin Meram

As we can see in the image above, the most advanced players in this attack are the wing-backs. Both wing-backs are able to get into the space vacated by the Minnesota United full-backs. This provides the width to Atlanta’s attack and allows both Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco to operate in the half-space and between the defensive lines.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Atlanta’s wing-backs (white) play high and wide in the attack. Josef Martinez (red) occupies the centre-backs, while Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco (yellow) drop off to play in the half-space, between the defensive lines

In the image above, we can see a good example of Atlanta United’s tactic in the final third. Both wing-backs are high up the pitch, staying near the touchlines. Barco and Pity Martinez drop behind the lead striker, Josef Martinez, and float between Minnesota’s defenders and midfield.

Atlanta United was in control of this match from the opening whistle, with Minnesota having problems dealing the Five Stripes attack. Both of Atlanta’s goals came in the first 16 minutes of the match and they both were created in the wide areas. The home side appears to target the channel between Minnesota United’s centre-backs and full-backs.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Gonzalez Pirez (red) makes an overlapping run to get behind Gaspar. Gressel slides a through ball (black) into the channel between the centre-backs and full-back
US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Gonzalez Pirez (red) continues his run forward. At the end line, he tries to cut the ball back for Josef Martinez

The first goal came in the 10th minute with an overlapping run by Leandro González Pirez on the right side. Julian Gressel plays the ball forward between Michael Boxall and Chase Gaspar. González Pirez can get on the end of the through ball, and tries to cut the ball back for Josef Martinez. The ball takes a deflection off Gaspar and sneaks over Vito Mannone to open the score.

Minnesota United truly do play a game of two halves

Minnesota United made one major change for this match. Instead of the 4-2-3-1 they have used for most of the season, they switched to a 4-3-3. Hassani Dotson started in the midfield with Jan Gregus and Osvaldo Alonso, who appeared in his seventh US Open Cup final. Dotson played in a deeper role alongside Alonso, looking to confine the space available for Barco and Pity Martinez to operate in.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Passmap for Minnesota United

Unfortunately for the Loons, this had the effect of opening space in the wide areas. With Robin Lod and Kevin Molino starting at on the wings, they both preferred to come centrally and play underneath Mason Toye. The result was that the Minnesota full-backs had to do most of the defence against the wing-backs alone.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Metanire (white) is poorly defending the run from Meram (red)
US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Meram (red) easily beats Metanire and cuts the ball (white) back for Pity Martinez (black), who easily scores

The second goal came largely from some poor defending by Roman Metanire. Without any support from Kevin Molino, when Justin Meram received the ball, the Malagasy defender retreated and refused to challenge Meram. Inside the penalty area, he’s able to take the ball to the end line and cut the ball back for Pity Martinez to slot home.

With Atlanta United ahead by two goals, it looked like the match could get out of hand for Minnesota United. The Loons struggled to control any possession, and they had problems progressing the ball up the pitch. An obvious problem in their attack was Robin Lod, whose passing range proved to be limited- he had problems completing any passes that went further forward than sideways.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Robin Lod’s passing map

This made Minnesota United dependent on Kevin Molino to provide the creativity against a stout Atlanta United defence. In the stoppage time of the first half, he was able to drift into the space between Atlanta’s lines. We can see below that Molino does a better job of finding the space than Lod, but both play behind Mason Toye. This allows Atlanta United to play a higher defensive line which Molino can play a ball over to Toye. This was Minnesota United’s best chance in the first half, and Toye should have headed the ball on target but instead, he tried an awkward volley that went over the goal.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Robin Lod moves into a poor space (grey), while Kevin Molino (blue) is able to find ample space between the lines
US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Molino finds space and plays a lofted ball (black) over Atlanta’s defence to a quality run by Mason Toye (blue), who finishes poorly

In the second half, Minnesota United made a key change. The wide players were instructed to get behind Atlanta United’s wide centre-backs. A key example of this play came in within 60 seconds of the start of the second half. In the images below, we can see Molino gets in behind Florentin Pogba. Pogba has problems making a challenge after Chase Gaspar plays the ball in for Molino. The Trinidadian cut the ball back, and Robin Lod slotted the ball home to score his first goal for Minnesota United.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
In the second half, Kevin Molino (blue) makes a run behind Florentin Pogba. Chase Gaspar plays the ball (black) to an onrushing Molino
US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Molino gets the ball ahead of Pogba, and cuts the ball (black) back for Robin Lod

The Loons defence is in stark contrast to last season

An important change for Minnesota United this season has been their defensive play. In their first two seasons in MLS, they gave up a record number of goals, but their defence is much improved this season. A key component of this improvement has been the partnership between Michael Boxall and Ike Opara. The addition of Ike Opara in an off-season trade with Sporting Kansas City has been one of the best transactions in the MLS this year.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Clearances for Michael Boxall (15) and Ike Opara (3)

Opara has done an excellent job organising Minnesota United’s defence. His ability to keep the defensive line tight came into play in this match. After the Loons reduced the deficit to 2-1, the Five Stripes came down and scored a third goal that would have put this match to bed. Fortunately for the visitors, Opara was able to step up at the right time to play Justin Meram off-side and forcing his goal to be disallowed.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Ike Opara (white) looks to play Justin Meram (red) off-side, to stop a goal-scoring counterattack by Atlanta
US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Ike Opara (white) steps up at the correct moment, leaving Justin Meram (red) off-side

This may seem like a simple thing, but the intelligent play of Opara has helped reduced a leaky defence. The ability to organise the defence and limit transition opportunities was something that the Loons had problems with last season. As Minnesota United took control in the second half, the defence improved and Atlanta United was limited in their ability to get forward.

US Open Cup 2019: Atlanta United vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis tactics
Attacks per minute for the match between Atlanta United and Minnesota United

Conclusions

After the first 16 minutes, this match looked like it would be an easy victory for Atlanta United. Minnesota United were having problems dealing with the Five Stripes’ attack and this match looked like it could quickly get out of hand.

However, unlike Minnesota United of years past, the Loons were able to steady the ship and avoid giving up additional goals. The visitors were able to get a goal back 65 seconds into the second half, and from that point, Minnesota United was able to take the upper hand. They created numerous chances, but they had problems finishing these chances.

Atlanta United’s problems got worse in the 74th minute after Leandro Gonzalez Pirez received his second yellow card in three minutes. This pinned the home side back even more, but Minnesota United was unable to level the score. Their best chance came in the 93rd minute when Ike Opara headed a lofted ball to Michael Boxall but his shot went horribly over the post.

Atlanta United won their second trophy in three weeks, after beating Club America in the Campeones Cup, between the winner of the MLS and Liga MX. This victory ensures that Atlanta United will compete in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League. Minnesota United can be proud of their effort, showing the progress that they’ve made over the past three seasons.


Artwork by @chapulana

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