ATL UTD disappointed in Open Cup ending but steers focus to league-leading form

Atlanta United’s second-ever run at the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup came to a disappointing end on Wednesday night as they fell just short to a Chicago Fire side in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. While Chicago put out a full lineup for the 5th round clash, Atlanta kept about half of their normal starters on the pitch ahead of a big league match against Portland this weekend.

“We probably had four or five changes from the lineup we usually have, but I thought we played a good game,” said Leandro González Pirez, who wore the captain’s armband in place of the rested Michael Parkhurst. “I thought the guys that stepped in for us came in and played really well. I thought the game was even. I thought we fought hard. In the end, we end up losing 1-0, but I thought we fought hard all night.”

“In the first half we were missing a little bit of intensity especially in the attacking third,” Pirez added. “Maybe we had some misunderstandings at times, but I think in the second half, we (were) more adjusted and used to playing together.”

Unfortunately, that lack of cohesiveness and squandered chances in the first 45 minutes proved to be a missed opportunity, as the Fire grabbed their lead right out of the gate in the second half. It was then that the 5-Stripes turned it on and piled on the pressure, but the players know flipping the script that late doesn’t always cut it.

“I would say that it was unfortunate that it took us getting scored on to really start pushing the game and getting into the attacking third,” said goalkeeper Alec Kann. “Once we did that, it was unfortunate that the ball didn’t bounce the right way to get it tied up and push it to extra time. It’s just unfortunate that it took us getting scored on to really wake up.”

But even with the success the team has had thus far this year, 90 minutes of perfect soccer every match is not always realistic. Sometimes a team just needs to do enough to get the result. Head coach Tata Martino believes his side did that Wednesday night, the match just didn’t fall in their favor.

“I think that’s football,” said Martino. “I think we created enough chances to, at minimum, have tied the game. I think we deserved that.”

Martino’s starting XI included six players who have primarily been utilized off the bench this season – four of which are 23 years old or younger, including Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu, who made his first-ever start for the club. And even with a shuffled lineup, the youngsters held their own against an experienced Chicago Fire side.

“[The] young guys did well,” added Kann. “A lot of these guys played in the Open Cup in the last round, so playing for this team is nothing new for any of us. Obviously, bigger crowd, bigger stage here, but guys did well. Just disappointed not to win the game.”

Because the U.S. Open Cup falls in the middle of the regular season, it’s a chance for the coach to give minutes to younger players while resting his starters for the upcoming league matches.

“We know we also wanted to give some guys rest because we have another important game on Sunday, and it’s important to keep taking care of the points in the league," Pirez said after the match. "We just have to get ready for that game.”

Their U.S. Open Cup journey may have come to a halt, but for Atlanta, keeping the lead at the top of the table is a major priority considering their finish could earn them a playoff spot, the Supporters’ Shield and qualification for the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League.

“They are two different competitions, so whatever happened tonight started and ended tonight," Martino said. "We know we have to get back to playing in the league. What happens on Sunday, hopefully, is just a continuation of how we played against Columbus.”

Atlanta heads into Sunday coming off a four-match unbeaten streak as they host the Portland Timbers for the first time in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s an East vs West clash you don’t want to miss, so make sure you secure your seat here. Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. EST and will be broadcast on FOX and FOX Sports GO. For all the other ways to follow the match click here.