Losing any competitive match is a bitter pill to swallow. Usually, getting knocked out of a cup competition is even worse. You have every right to be upset after Miami FC eliminated Atlanta United from the U.S. Open Cup via a 93rd minute Kwadwo Poku goal. While you’re searching for a target to aim your blame, you’re likely aiming your arrow at the lineup selection by Tata Martino. His decision to rest most of Atlanta’s impact players was a huge factor in the result, there’s no denying it. However, that decision was a measured and logical one that needed to be made.
Atlanta United are in the midst of a long stretch of matches currently. Something like eight matches in 27 days or something completely absurd. Squad rotation is a must during a run like that. Keeping players fresh and fit is one of a soccer manager’s main jobs.
A midweek cup match is the perfect opportunity to rest your best players. Factor in the USOC’s weird rule of only allowing five international players in the matchday squad, it was inevitable that Tata would need to shake-up his usual lineup. Usually, Atlanta feature up to seven internationals in the starting lineup and even more on the bench. A change in the normal selection process was already inevitable. Add in the lack of rest for most players and this was the perfect chance to give players who rarely feature a chance to play.
Tata’s lineup choice was a very balanced one that included youth, experience and talent. It was capable of winning the match and proved so as they dominated the majority of the play and chances in the first half despite exchanging goals. Miami were a good team an ultimately deserved the win, but Atlanta’s second (even third)-choice squad kept up through the duration of the 90+ minutes.
If you’re looking to lay blame, lay it at the feet of the players who got their chance to play and didn’t perform the way they should have. Ironically, it wasn’t the youngsters getting their first taste of professional soccer who disappointed, but the high-priced role players who were expected to play a big part this season who made the costly mistakes.
Would Atlanta United have had a better chance to advance in the tournament if they had played as many first-choice players as they feasibly could’ve fit within the roster guidelines? Sure. But, with another away league match on Saturday and another league match right after on Tuesday, it just wouldn’t have been very smart to do that.
Ultimately, the Open Cup is a luxury tournament. MLS is the be-all-end-all for teams like Atlanta United. Their success will be judged solely on how they finish in the league. Whose ever decision it ended up being to focus on the league in lieu of making a deep cup run, they made the right one for logical reasons.
It’s not feasible to expect Atlanta United to have the squad depth in the first ever season to compete in a tournament like this. As much as we as supporters want to dream of lifting a trophy, it’s just not realistic for the team to focus on the Open Cup and sacrifice points in MLS. Maybe in a year or two when the technical staff has a chance to mold the overall shape of the roster more to Tata’s style of play, those Cup dreams will veer more towards reality. For now, Tata’s choices were logical and smart.