With Atlanta United right in the middle of a brutal stretch of 8 games in 25 days, it would be easy for the Five Stripes to overlook Lamar Hunt US Open Cup matches as they pursue a MLS playoff position in the standings.
Yes, it’s only mid-season but there is a lot to play for over these next few weeks in both league and cup opportunities.
Making the case for Atlanta pushing for the US Open Cup means that the club would bring home silverware in their expansion year, earn a berth in the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), and arguably take the path of least resistance to a trophy as they complete year one (MLS playoffs are full of surprises).
So hold on now. That’s not to say that Atlanta United should totally forget about their regular-season league matches but the US Open Cup offers a unique opportunity for an expansion team to be successful not only on a domestic but a regional stage right from the start. Atlanta is just four wins away from the US Open Cup…keep that in mind and I’ll make some predictions later.
Looking at the Atlanta United FC mindset, qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League would validate the aggressive roster moves, increase the regional “brand” of the club, make recruiting ties even stronger in the hemisphere, and make the 2018 season even sweeter with some international clubs making the flight to ATL for CCL matches.
Let’s be clear, it’s not as easy as Atlanta deciding which trophy they want to put on the shelf this season…but there are some really intriguing arguments for the US Open Cup being priority #1 over the summer. Let’s look a little bit closer at the matchups.
Atlanta is just four wins away from lifting the Cup. We know Miami FC (NASL) is next and with a win Atlanta hosts the winner of Chicago-Cincinnati (USL). After the quarter finals, a final draw determines the semifinal hosts and possible sites for the final. I am sure MLS and US Soccer would love to see 50,000+ fans in the Mercedes-Benz to crown a champion…and we’d be happy to play that role.
Back to our group in the South region. First up is an in-form Miami FC squad that has already dispatched an MLS opponent on their cup quest. Miami went to Orlando and beat a-less-that-full-strength Lion’s squad 3-1 on the strength of a Stefano Pinho hat trick in the last round. Sitting in first place in the NASL, Miami just defeated the NY Cosmos in league play and are no push overs as they boast several accomplished players like former Georgia Revolution/Atlanta Silverbacks star Poku and the before-mentioned Pinho on the roster. Running out the ATL UTD first team should be enough to win the game in Miami despite the travel and quality of the opponent. It is not as simple as just playing a first-team line up to advance, but the high “Peachtree” press and depth of Atlanta should carry the side despite the poor road form of the Five Stripes (0-4-1 over the past five road matches) against NASL competition.
A win in Miami finds the Five Stripes back in Kennesaw hosting the winner of Chicago-Cincinnati (USL) in the quarterfinals in early July. Cincy defeated the Crew to get to the last 16 and their home-field advantage (over 30,000 for their last Cup match) will give the Fire all kinds of fits. Chicago rested just a couple of key players (Nikolic and Schweinsteiger) in the previous round as they defeated Saint Louis FC 1-0…so expect the Fire to run out nearly all the first team as they play at Cincy. The Fire just blasted Orlando 4-0 in league play so this should be a very interesting match with two very committed teams. It also was just announced that this game will be broadcast live on ESPN2 adding to the moment and the Cincinnati-for-MLS-expansion conversation.
So there you have the next two steps along the US Open Cup path. Win at Miami and then take care of the Fire/Cincy winner at home to advance to the final four. If the matches work out and the draw goes our way we could be just two home matches from the Cup by mid-July. The MLS regular season will still have 15 games to go after the draw with 9 of those at home…so there’s still time for a late push in the regular season. The risks of all the tired legs, dropping league matches, and poor performances are definitely worth it considering the rewards that are associated with winning the Cup. Sometimes you can’t have it all…especially in the game of soccer…so pick your fight and win it.
That’s my case for the Cup.