Atlanta United will take the next step in their quest for silverware in 2018 by taking on their first MLSish opponent in the US Open Cup on Wednesday. The team is coming off of a dominant 3-0 win against the Charleston Battery in the tournament and a convincing 2-0 road win in Columbus during league play. The Five Stripes will look to get through to the next round in the Open Cup as their path to the final also became more clear.
Should they beat the Fire on Wednesday, Atlanta will take on the winner of Nashville SC vs. Louisville City FC. The winner from that match will take on either the Philadelphia Union or the winner of Orlando City vs. DC United in the semi-final round. As always, anything can happen in the US Open Cup, so don’t start planning the victory parade just yet.
More like the Second String City
The Chicago Fire come into the Open Cup after winning their recent match in the tournament against the Columbus Crew. This is pretty impressive, Columbus is a pretty good team - one that Atlanta beat just a week ago. So what in the name of Alan Gordon happened? Well, some pretty crazy stuff it would turn out. Nemanja Nikolic would lead the Fire attack scoring a goal in the 45th minute to put the score even at one. When the game went into extra time, he would score what looked to be the game winner in the 109th minute. Not to make everyone forget that the reason he exists is to play in games like this, Crew forward Adam Jahn would equalize in the 114th minute.
The teams would stay tied and go to penalties where Chicago Fire goalkeeper Richard Sanchez would be called upon to take a shot from the spot. He buried it while his Crew counterpart Logan Ketterer would miss his, advancing Chicago in the tournament. So, what can we expect from the Fire in this game?
Well, it’s hard to say as with any non-league game. Surely, Veljko Paunovic will want to start his first choice lineup, but the Fire have less a first squad and more, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nikolic, Dax McCarty, Aleksandar Katai, and some guys. Additionally, the Fire are tied on points for the last playoff spot in the East and if they want to make the post season, Paunovic may decide resting his starters and concentrating on the league is the best choice. Perhaps, the lineup he picked against Columbus is an indication of what he will do against Atlanta though:
Ready to kick off our #USOC2018 @opencup campaign— Chicago Fire (@ChicagoFire) June 6, 2018
Tonight's #cf97 Starting XI pres. by @ATT → pic.twitter.com/igl7KrKjIW
Any combination of those players and some guys is the A-B-and-C team for the Fire. Chicago managed to figure out Atlanta before by keeping Schweinsteiger deep and letting him find passes and space as a deep-lying playmaker last year in Chicago. It worked in that game, but against Atlanta this year, the Five Stripes came away with a 2-1 win. In that visit to Chicago, the Fire contained Atlanta by pressing but not really stepping to the player with the ball. Once Atlanta players made the adjustment at half-time and took an extra beat to pick a pass, they scored twice in four minutes.
Big night in the Benz
Atlanta will look to progress in the tournament by... well being Atlanta United. It seems like Tata Martino found a good formula with the lineup in the last Open Cup game especially with Ezequiel Barco and Andrew Carleton having a great partnership in the win. On top of that, giving Carleton a start at MBS may be too much to pass up given that the youngster was so effective against Charleston. This may also be a game where Martino goes with Tito Villalba as a starter as it seems like it’s safe to say at this point in the season that Tata prefers the 3-5-2 and he prefers Julian Gressel’s cutbacks to Tito’s speed in the formation. Plus, it would give Gressel a chance to rest ahead of the game against Portland this weekend.
However the team ends up lining up, they will need to keep Nikolic contained and, should he start, prevent Schweinsteiger from unlocking what might not be the first choice Atlanta defense. Without a doubt, the main strength for the Fire is in the attack and if they catch the backline of Atlanta switched off or perhaps not accustomed to playing with their teammates, it could cost the Five Stripes. Still, Atlanta should feel confident going into the game as the team has the depth and skill to get past the Fire.