EPL: Do you feel that a Minnesota-Atlanta final is a rivalry in a final? What does the connection to Minnesota mean on and off the pitch as we head into Tuesday?
DSS: I’m not really sure that this could be counted as a rivalry match. Sure, there’s the banter between the two fan bases due to the fact that both teams entered the league at the same time and that Atlanta’s first ever win came at Minnesota, but I don’t know that it has the same bite to it like an Atlanta-Orlando or, maybe, an Atlanta-Red Bulls matchup would have.
As far as the connection between the two clubs and off the pitch, I think it’s good that both are seeing success at the same time. Atlanta is coming off winning MLS Cup in December, and Minnesota is well within playoff position and has opened its new stadium to rave reviews. While the origin of the two franchises are different (Minnesota rising in ranks from an NASL side and Atlanta being a more straightforward expansion team) and the supporter culture being unique in their own ways, they’ll always have that common thread of 2017 between them.
EPL: Josef Martinez has scored in 12 straight MLS matches... is he they key to success for Tuesday? Or will Minnesota’s solidified defense prove troublesome? Where does success lie within Atlanta, who is the “dark horse”?
DSS: 2. Martinez is certainly one of the names to keep an eye on for the reason you mentioned, and I think that Minnesota will surely need to account for him if it’s to have a chance to win on Tuesday. It’s interesting that earlier in the season many were wondering “What’s wrong with Josef?” As it turns out, the answer was “Nothing, really.” There have been some formational changes that Frank de Boer has made that has equaled him regaining that goal scoring form that he enjoyed over his first two seasons in MLS; I can only wonder how many goals he’d have if de Boer had made that change earlier in the season.
On top of that you have Miles Robinson, who has had a tremendous year, and Darlington Nagbe, who has truly settled into his role as a strong, reliable ball-moving presence in the midfield. I don’t know if Atlanta has the success they’ve had without those two players performing the way they have.
EPL: Frank De Boer has finally found his footing in Atlanta - earlier in the season fans were calling for his resignation but now he’s taken his side to a Cup Final and 1st in the East. What changed to get you there?
DSS: 3. I think that the “Fire de Boer” movement was really an overreaction based on Atlanta’s success over the first 2 years. There are a couple of things that really have been a catalyst of change that - frankly - can’t truly be fully credited to de Boer, but he does deserve a nod for having the flexibility to adjust some things. The first was a wave of discontent over de Boer’s decision to start the season in a 3-4-3 formation that favored a more defensive, possession-based style of play. If you’ve watched Atlanta, you know that “defensive, possession-based” doesn’t even come close to how they’re used to playing, so going away from that free-flowing, quick-moving blueprint that Tata Martino installed in 2017 and 2018 really hurt the team and caused a swell of discontent among not just the fan base, but the players - with several of them (including Pity Martinez, Josef Martinez and Leandro Gonzalez Perez) expressing dissatisfaction over this new tactical approach. Since the team moved to a more attacking-friendly 3-5-2 that allows players like Justin Meram and Julian Gressel to move the ball up the wings and lean on their crossing skills to create for Josef Martinez in the attack - while showcasing Gressel’s innate ability to pick Josef out with some well-timed diagonal balls up the pitch - it’s really been night and day.
Secondly, as this team begins to get fully healthy, they’ll be in that much better position as the MLS playoffs roll around. Ezequiel Barco was with the Argentina U-20s but didn’t come straight back to the lineup due to injury, so he’s getting himself back to form. Tito Villalba missed a chunk of the season but has returned and received a runout toward the end of Atlanta’s most recent matches. Having a player like George Bello, who is rehabbing with ATL UTD 2 in USL, will be key, as well as others like Mikey Ambrose and Kevin Kratz providing needed depth toward the back end of the season.
EPL: Match prediction and lineup prediction?
DSS: 4. Even with Saturday’s match against Philadelphia being the final one before the international break, it’s still very important for Atlanta in the standings as they look to hold on to that top seed in the East. That being said, Tuesday is a final, so it will be all or nothing for de Boer and his troops as they look to win that second trophy and clinch their spot in the Concacaf Champions League.
Forwards: Josef Martinez - Pity Martinez
Midfield: Justin Meram - Ezequiel Barco - Eric Remedi - Darlington Nagbe - Julian Gressel
Defense: Florentin Pogba - Miles Robinson - Leandro Gonzalez Pirez
(Franco Escobar hasn’t played in the last couple matches, so Pogba will take his spot in the defense. That all depends on what the injury report looks like ahead of the match)
As for a prediction: I think Minnesota comes out looking to exploit what could be a tired Atlanta team, but the talent of the Five Stripes should overcome that. Goals by Josef Martinez and Tito Villalba (off the bench) see Atlanta win this 2-0 and lift the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in front of its home fans.
Go Loons, folks.