ST. PAUL -- Minnesota United has had few MLS opponents stir the Loons’ pot, but Atlanta United is one of them.
Since joining MLS together in 2017, the clubs were paired together initially like step-siblings in an arranged marriage. But after three games, the association is no longer just a byproduct of timing, and a fourth meeting will come at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“There is a bit of a rivalry there,” Loons center back Brent Kallman said Tuesday. “… When you are in those matches, it feels like it, too. You can feel that there is a little bit more behind it.”
When conjoined two years ago, Minnesota United was quick to point out Atlanta’s advantages — a longer runway to make its MLS debut and less financial commitment to build a new stadium, meaning more money to acquire players.
The disparity was shown in each club’s second MLS game in March 2017. Minnesota was quickly exposed on national TV as Atlanta rolled to a 6-1 rout of the Loons at a snow-covered TCF Bank Stadium.
“Embarrassing for everybody involved,” Kallman said.
But later in October, the Loons staged a dramatic comeback for a 3-2 victory in stoppage time, giving Atlanta its first home defeat.
Overall in their debuts, Atlanta boasted one of the best expansion starts in league history and advanced to the MLS Cup playoffs. Minnesota missed the playoffs by 10 points.
Last March, Minnesota lost 1-0 to 10-men Atlanta after Francisco Calvo’s early own goal in Minneapolis. That game is infamous for the then-Loons captain blasting the league for what he perceived to be lack of respect for Minnesota compared to Atlanta and last year’s expansion darling Los Angeles FC.
Calvo seemed to forget that respect is earned.
In 2018, Atlanta built on its strong first season, going on to win MLS Cup in December. Minnesota missed the playoffs by 13 points.
Now in Year 3, Minnesota (6-4-3) and Atlanta (6-5-2) appear to be on more equal footing, and the road team has won all three games in the series.
Minnesota’s 3-2 win in October 2017 ranks among the club’s most-thrilling in its MLS era. Abu Danladi had a jaw-dropping rocket to start the five-goal second half. The Loons trailed 2-1 when Christian Ramirez tallied the equalizer in the 90th, and Kevin Molino produced the game-winner in the 96th.
“That one was pretty special,” Kallman said. “I remember that one really well. As far as road wins, that one is up there with my favorite — and there hasn’t been a ton, let’s be honest.”
Coach Adrian Heath said the thrill was a product of the uphill climb the first team faced. Going into their 31st game, the Loons had little to play for in the twilight of the season, sitting at 9-16-5 in the Western Conference. Atlanta was near the top of the East at 15-8-8.
Both Atlanta and Minnesota have transitioned in Year 3. The Loons have added veterans to become an MLS Cup playoff contender in Allianz Field’s first season. Meanwhile, championship-winning coach Tata Martino has left Atlanta to coach the Mexico national team, and star attacker Miguel Almiron was sold to Newcastle of the English Premier League.
New coach Frank de Boer has taken over after success at Ajax in Amsterdam, but struggles at Inter Milan in Italy’s Serie A and Crystal Palace in the Premier League.
On Wednesday, each team will be without at least one of its top players. Atlanta’s young Designated Player Ezequiel Barco is away with the Argentine team in the Under-20 World Cup in Poland. Minnesota’s right back Romain Metanire is suspended with yellow-card accumulation from the 1-0 win over Houston on Saturday.
Plus, each club has underperforming attacking midfielders. Atlanta’s Pity Martinez, the reigning South American player of the year, has just one goal and one assist this season. Darwin Quintero has five goals and three assists this year, but none in the past six games.
“It’s a big stadium, it’s going to be a huge crowd,” Heath said. “It’s one of them — I’m sure that a lot of players look forward to playing in that game.”
Minnesota will learn its pairing for the U.S. Open Cup fourth-round game on Thursday. The Loons, and other domestic MLS clubs, begin play in the longest-running national soccer tournament on June 12.