Atlanta United is back in action in the U.S. Open Cup Wednesday, with a matchup against USL Championship side Saint Louis FC standing between them and a spot in the semifinals. The Five Stripes need just three wins for their first piece of silverware of 2019, and they’ll be hoping a rocking home crowd will help push them past a tough, physical side who will fight for 90 minutes for their tournament lives.
Ahead of the crucial knockout match, we broke down the Tools to the Match, presented by The Home Depot:
Match the Fight
Saint Louis FC may sit in the middle of the pack in the USL Championship Eastern Conference, but with two wins over MLS sides already in the U.S. Open Cup already this season, they’ve shown they can rise to any occasion. That’s thanks to a hard-nose style that makes their opponent earn their chances –– and that comes straight from the top in head coach Anthony Pulis, son of former Stoke City manager Tony Pulis. Atlanta United got a good warm-up against perhaps the most physical defensive side in MLS in the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, but they’ll have to be back up for an intense encounter on Wednesday. Atlanta United has the advantage in quality on the roster, but they’ll have to match Saint Louis’ fight to move on to the next round.
Limit Set Piece Chances
That physical style of play is especially effective on set piece plays, where Saint Louis have scored more than a quarter of their goals so far this season. Captain Sam Fink is the joint-top scorer for the team this year despite playing from the center back position, and it was he who scored the second-half stoppage time winner to sink the Chicago Fire two rounds ago. Atlanta United will have to be careful to avoid fouls that set up Saint Louis for their bread and butter set piece plays. And when they come, they’ll have to keep a laser focus to match the physicality from Saint Louis on those dead ball situations. If they can do that, it will shut down one of Saint Louis’ primary scoring outlets.
Lock Down the Back
The old saying goes that defense wins championships, and that’s especially true in knockout, tournament-style play like the U.S. Open Cup. After spending the first half of the year establishing themselves as perhaps the premier defense in all of MLS, Atlanta United have had some uncharacteristically leaky performances in the back over the past few weeks. After the late goal against the Red Bulls on Sunday, the back line voiced an eagerness for a chance at redemption as they try to re-capture the form that pushed them toward the top of the Eastern Conference this season, particularly at the very beginning and end of games. If they can keep their defensive shape and focus for the entire 90 minutes to keep a clean sheet at home, it will go a long way toward setting the team up for success.
The match is set to kick off Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET from Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University, and you can watch the match on ESPN+. For more details on how to follow along from home, click here.