United will attempt on Wednesday to do something it didn’t do last year: advance to the sixth round of the U.S. Open Cup.
On a humid night in southern Florida, Atlanta United was bounced by Miami, an NASL team that was dominating its league, 3-2 on a goal in the last minute in the fifth round of last year’s tournament.
This year, Atlanta United will play in the comfortable confines of its home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, against a team that is one of five that will likely be fighting for the final playoff spot in the MLS Eastern Conference.
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino didn’t seem too concerned with the circumstances, instead focusing only on the hopeful result.
“Our challenge is to go as far as we can and keep advancing in the Open Cup,” he said.
Atlanta United advanced to the fifth round by dispatching Charleston 3-0 at Kennesaw State. Chicago advanced by defeating Columbus in a penalty kick shootout.
“They always take the Open Cup very seriously,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Alec Kann. “Expecting a battle on Wednesday.”
The two teams have met once this season. Atlanta United defeated Chicago 2-1 at Toyota Park on May 5 in MLS play.
It was a difficult game for the Five Stripes.
Chicago aggressively pressed, penning Atlanta United back throughout the first half. But the Fire wasted their few attempts on goals.
Atlanta United took advantage of halftime to make two tactical adjustments: pushing defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz higher up the field and bringing striker Ezequiel Barco back toward the midfield, which provided outlets to break Chicago’s pressure.
Atlanta United broke through in the 53rd minute on Barco’s first goal with the team. Josef Martinez struck six minutes later to secure the three points.
“We were able to get into a rhythm, get into the game, get onto the scoresheet and get out of there with a win,” Atlanta United striker Romario Williams said.
Martino wasn’t sure if Martinez would play against Chicago on Wednesday. The striker suffered a broken nose scoring in last week’s win at Columbus.
The U.S. Open Cup limits teams to five non-U.S. players on gameday rosters. To beat Charleston, Martino called on a group of the lesser-used players. Last year against Miami, Martino’s game day 18 was composed of the younger and less-experienced, so it’s likely he may continue that trend.
“A lot of us don’t get a ton of opportunities with the first team,” Kann said. “When we have them, we need to make the most of them.”
Should Atlanta United win, a path is opening for what should be an easier trip to the championship game. Wednesday’s winner will advance to the play the winner of the game between USL sides Louisville City and Nashville. Atlanta United would host should it defeat Chicago. The quarterfinal game is scheduled for July 18.
That winner will likely face either D.C. United, Orlando City or Philadelphia, three teams that are struggling in MLS this season. The semifinal is scheduled for Aug. 8.
“We are all here for a purpose,” Williams said. “Whenever we are called upon we are expected to be ready. That’s our role. That’s our responsibility, to always be ready.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.