The U.S. Open Cup final has been eagerly anticipated by Loons fans. It’s the team’s first chance at a title since the NASL days, a glamour fixture that can set a marker for the team for years to come. But aside from the standard existential dread when Minnesota sports heroes come remotely close to providing good things, there’s the issue of needing to face Atlanta United.
Yes, the same Atlanta United that, in their history, have beaten Minnesota United three times in their four meetings, including the infamous 6-1 Snowpener beatdown. The same Atlanta side behind a 3-0 win that, while punctuated by two stoppage-time goals in the second half from Josef Martinez, probably was a fair result. The same Atlanta United side that has only dropped points at home once in all competitions since June.
Atlanta United’s personnel somewhat writes itself. The Five Stripes will roll out some variation of a 3-4-3 that will drop a forward or two slightly behind into midfield, defends with seven while still providing pressure, and forces weird looks in different parts of the field. Frank de Boer found his rotation, and while the team battled chemistry issues and an inability to link from back to front early in the year, their attacking movement and passing lately has been far less restrained.
At the back, Brad Guzan is covered by a trio of ball-capable center backs, with Miles Robinson in the middle flanked with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and, with Franco Escobar injured, Florentin Pogba to the left. Gonzalez Pirez’s contributions to the team have been legion since joining their inaugural 2017 squad, but Robinson’s breakout year has been crucial for Atlanta sorting some early woes. Drafted third in the 2017 SuperDraft, Robinson has emerged in de Boer’s system that places a premium on pass-ready defending, clearing many of the mistakes that plagued his early appearances under Tata Martino. He’s also been able to make a now namesake mazy run through the midfields of teams occupied with man-marking Atlanta’s elite attackers:
Folks are calling it "The Miles Robinson Run". It's the perfect advertisement for ball-carrying center backs. MR receives the ball, moves past an onrushing opponent, breaks into midfield, and forces the opposing right back to step to him, leaving a left-sided attacker in space. pic.twitter.com/jzrcXEJdZu— Joseph Lowery (@joeInCleats) August 15, 2019
This isn’t a new wrinkle to Loons fans; Ike Opara and Michael Boxall have made similar marauding runs this year for largely the same tactical reasoning. It means, however, that Minnesota will need a free midfielder ready to keep pace with Robinson, a task that will probably fall to Jan Gregus.
Another hallmark of Atlanta’s tactics is how involved their wing backs get into attack. Julian Gressel’s influence as an assist machine has been hard to ignore in his time in MLS, but it took Frank de Boer time to move him into a more natural position after playing central midfield and further into the attack. His move back to the right side of midfield has opened space for both crosses and short passes to his preferred target Josef Martinez. It’s paid off: in his last seven games since moving into a right midfield/wing back role, Gressel has tallied five assists on 32 key passes, both tallying more than his previous 20 appearances combined. His counterpart on the left is no slouch either. Justin Meram’s stat lines since entering the main rotation at left midfield haven’t been quite as astounding, but his two goals against Montreal and consistently rough-and-tumble defending have been revelatory.
All that said, the headline for Atlanta is in the attack. Josef Martinez is having a down year compared to 2018, yet he’s scored in his last twelve appearances. Pity Martinez has shown signs of electricity, particularly when Atlanta keeps their Argentine more centrally engaged. Ezequiel Barco’s time away on international duty—and with a June/July knee injury—hasn’t allowed his stat line to pop out, but recent games have seen him link into the attack with greater frequency. While Josef Martinez is given license to challenge the last defender, Barco and Pity Martinez’s free roles as dual #10s allow them to roam, finding space to overload with the wingbacks and deliver passes to on-rushers in the center.
How, pray tell, do you beat a team with this amount of firepower? Control the flow of touches to Josef Martinez, particularly via limiting the impact of Pity Martinez. In the four dropped results in Atlanta’s last ten games (away to Chicago, home vs. the Red Bulls, and away at Seattle and LAFC), Josef Martinez took an average of three shots per game versus an average of 6.17 in their six wins, averaging 5.5 fewer passes per game in the non-wins as well. In those games, Pity Martinez’s passing completion dropped to 63.2% versus 71.4% in their wins, and his key passes dropped to 1.17 per 90 versus 2.79. If you find a way to cover Josef Martinez with a center back and Pity Martinez in the pocket of a midfielder, the sting comes out of Atlanta’s attack... somewhat.
Another key: avoid unforced errors in the box. Josef Martinez’s ability to poach a goal is well understood at this point, but Atlanta has also scored ten of their 46 goals this season with direct assistance from their opposing defense, via own goal or from the penalty spot. They’re tied for the most own goals drawn, and are also tied for the most penalties taken and penalties scored this year. With 22% of their goals scored coming directly from defensive errors, Ike Opara and Michael Boxall must cleanly defend the box; luckily, while the team has allowed ten set piece goals this year, its three goals allowed on PKs and own goals this season rank third best in the league.
More than limiting their scoring, beating Atlanta also means fighting fire with fire. Since beating the Loons 3-0 on May 29, Atlanta has dropped points five times in eleven league matches. Those games have included four absolute track meets: a 3-2 win for Toronto, a 5-1 hammering by Chicago, a 3-3 draw with the Red Bulls, and a 4-3 win by LAFC. Their last six league victories, by contrast, have seen the Five Stripes win by keeping the game calm and the opposition at bay, only allowing one goal in those games while only breaking out for more than two goals twice.
While a stretched game should benefit a team with electric strikers, it also impacts their ability to regain shape when counterpressed. This forces their central midfield of Darlington Nagbe and one of Eric Remedi or Jeff Larentowicz into needing to recover quickly, particularly when their wing backs and one of Miles Robinson or Leandro Gonzalez Pirez get into attack. It’ll be crucial for the Loons to find ways to counter quickly when they recover the ball, namely with someone like Angelo Rodriguez working as a waystation for the attack. Atlanta doesn’t necessarily give away explicit counterattack goals—just one this season—but they do get beat with numbers as the offense builds play up.
The other possible way to beat them? Penalties! Despite loads of practice, Josef Martinez hasn’t been automatic on penalties this year:
It’s one of the striker’s two missed PKs this year, and with backup striker Brandon Vasquez the only other to attempt (and make) a penalty for Atlanta in 2019, the odds are less scary should it get to the spot after 120 minutes, particularly if this happens: