From early on, it has been clear that Frank de Boer is not taking the US Open Cup lightly. This game was a confirmation of that. St. Louis FC, based on points in the USL Championship, is a weaker team than New Mexico United, and was therefore arguably the weakest side remaining in the tournament. Despite that, Atlanta United fielded as nearly a first XI as could be expected, especially with a long road trip to Seattle coming up this weekend. Moreover, FdB didn’t make any substitutions until 84 minutes in. And that was in the steamy conditions at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw rather than the air-conditioned comfort of the Benz.
The 1914 Stripes put in a workmanlike performance. Statistically, they thoroughly dominated the game. 70.7% possession, 21 shots, 7 on target. A mammoth 606 passes, of which 69% were in the attacking half and 33% in the final third. And yet, the halftime scoreline stood at 0-0. At that point FdB rightly accused his team of being sloppy and needing to step it up.
Some credit also goes to the negative football strategy of Anthony Pulis. He bunkered his way to that scoreless state, yielding 73.6% possession in the first half. It nearly came up trumps, as St. Louis, despite a general lack of chances on goal, almost took the lead when defender Sam Fink hit the upright with a header in the 37th minute.
Before taking over at St. Louis last year, Pulis was the head coach of the imaginatively named Orlando City B (Orlando City 2 would obviously be far better), so we know where that approach was developed. Orlando City B, by the way, were so bad that after Pulis left they cancelled their 2018 season and then voluntarily relegated themselves from the USL Championship to USL League One.
Whatever adjustments were made at halftime, they evidently worked, because Atlanta took the lead less than 7 minutes into the second half, having already made 4 previous shots in the half and before St. Louis were able to make a single attempt on goal.
Although St. Louis did step it up for the remainder of the game, tallying 7 shots in the second half (compared with 4 in the first), none were on target, and United were never in any great danger of relinquishing the lead. And that includes the stoppage time flurry of 3 corners with even St. Louis keeper Tomas Gomez in the box.
The game was secured late into stoppage time when Sean Reynolds made a desperation DOGSO foul on Dion Pereira and Josef Martinez blasted the ensuing penalty kick into the net.
And so Atlanta moves on in the Cup, to face Orlando City
SC in the semi-final on August 6th. Which means that over 24 days, a good chunk of the team will travel down to the Kissimmee suburbs 3 times, the MLS All-Star Game on July 31st and the league game on August 23rd bookending the Cup tie.
Orlando, for their part, did everything they could to spare Atlanta that miserable triple fate. They gave up a lead over New York City FC nearly 6 minutes into second half stoppage time, then went an additional 30 minutes with no further score and then 6 rounds into the penalty shootout before keeper Adam Grinwis decided that Atlanta would probably prefer to swelter in Florida rather than get bumped around on a field as crowded as a New York subway car.
An additional bonus of that game, though, is that NYCFC head to Harrison, New Jersey this weekend for a key derby match having played 120 minutes in midweek. Both teams are nipping at Atlanta’s heels in the Eastern Conference, but NYCFC have 2 games in hand. There is a strong chance of points getting usefully dropped.
On the downside, as if having to play in a place called Exploria Stadium 3 times wasn’t bad enough, Atlanta’s cramped schedule now stretches on into August. Over the 47 days from June 26th through August 11th Atlanta will have played 12 games. That’s a game every 3.92 days, and that doesn’t include the All-Star Game.
No rest for the good guys.
Anyway, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match was Pity Martinez for what was clearly his best outing in red and black to date, even if it was against clearly weaker opposition. A Special Mention is awarded to Josef Martinez for hanging it all out there as usual, and another to Emerson Hyndman for a strong debut.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Brad was credited with 3 saves in the game, but that was generous. The first was a soft long-range attempt that crawled into his hands and the other two were gently lobbed headers. Otherwise untroubled.
LB: Brek Shea – 7. 1 tackle, 1 block and 1 recovery. Not exactly what you would call being tested. Attempted 66 passes with 84.8% accuracy. Of those, all but 12 were in the attacking half.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7. 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 3 clearances (all close range) and 7 recoveries. Also credited with a shot that was blocked outside the penalty arc. Another generous stat.
CB: Miles Robinson – 7.5. 1 tackle, 3 interceptions, 3 clearances and 8 recoveries. His passing map looks like a Darlington Nagbe impersonation. A good evening marred by the yellow card.
RB: Franco Escobar – 6. 1 tackle, 1 block, 2 clearances and 1 recovery. About as untested as Shea on the opposite side. 1 close range shot off target. A fairly low 38 pass attempts, but with 94.7% accuracy.
LDM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. Tried to get his first United goal, with 3 attempts, although they all looked like mid-range field goal tries. Just 64 passes with 92.2% accuracy.
RDM: Eric Remedi – 7. 2 shots, 1 on target. 56 passes, 92.9% accuracy. Overall, the back six did not have a difficult evening.
LM: Justin Meram – 6.5. Justin got just 1 off-target shot in during his 84 minutes, and worked the overlap well with Shea. Picked up a yellow card though.
CAM: Emerson Hyndman – 8. His first appearance in red and black stripes since 2018. Since early 2017 he spent most of his time in the Scottish Premiership with Rangers and Hibernian, so to put on such a good performance having not really played any soccer in two and a half years was impressive. Got the assist on Pity’s game-winner. Left in the 87th minute.
RM: Pity Martinez – 8. Pulled at the 90-minute mark, and this time for a well-earned rest. Admittedly only 3 shots, but 2 were on frame, and one found the net. Passing was solid.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. 6 shots, 3 on target, including the PK. Worked hard all night and created chances galore.
SUB: Dion Pereira – 7. Just 6 official minutes, but he was busy during that stint, and drew the PK. Finished the game out as planned by FdB.
SUB: Brandon Vazquez – 6. Came on with 3 minutes on the clock, touched the ball 4 times. No need for late heroics this time.
SUB: Julian Gressel – 7. Came in with just stoppage time left, but got in 1 block, 2 interceptions and 1 clearance to ensure the win.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. Put the best team out there. Got upset when they didn’t perform. Got them to perform. Obviously wants this Cup. Probably also felt good to beat the son of a prior Crystal Palace manager.
WELLSTAR – 1. You sponsored a press box?