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Atlanta United advances to first U.S. Open Cup final

The Five Stripes won a semifinal at Orlando City 2-0 and will host the final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

ORLANDO, Fla — Atlanta United is headed to another final. The Five Stripes defeated Orlando City 2-0 in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal at Exploria Stadium Tuesday night. 

This will be Atlanta’s first appearance in the Open Cup final. It had previously reached the tournament’s round of 16 in 2017 and 2018. The Five Stripes’ only trophy won to date is the 2018 MLS Cup. In addition to the Open Cup final later this month, Atlanta will host Club América in the Campeones Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Aug. 14.

With Josef Martínez missing due to a knock sustained during Friday’s training session, Atlanta needed someone to step up. In the 37th minute, that someone was Eric Remedi. The holding midfielder found space near the top of the penalty area and tested Orlando goalkeeper Adam Grinwis with a hard shot. Grinwis parried to his left, but Julian Gressel was there and whipped a low square ball back into the area. Remedi surged forward and deflected the ball past Grinwis.

It was Remedi’s second goal for Atlanta. He previously scored during the first leg of the 2018 Major League Soccer Eastern Conference semifinals at New York City FC. Remedi credited two of his teammates for the goal.

“Obviously when you lose a guy like Martínez, he’s a very important player, but as you saw tonight, Pity [Martínez] and [Ezequiel] Barco are very creative players that help open up that space,” Remedi said through an interpreter after the game. “I don’t know if it was so much of a [directive from the manager] to go into the attack, but I think those to guys really opened up the game for us. There were moments when I could go. It wasn’t necessarily an obligation. I just thought it was the right thing to do in the moment.”

Atlanta has lacked focus and concentration away from home this season, leading to poor results. That was not a problem Tuesday.

“Everybody was involved today, played really well and concentrated,” manager Frank de Boer said. “This is what I want to see.

“I think if you see the first half, I think we were much better, and I think we could have punished them more than 1-0. Of course they had one very good chance, but I think overall the first half was for us.” 

Both sides missed opportunities in the opening 45. Atlanta had four free headers from set pieces, but none were on target. Dom Dwyer scored for Orlando in the fifth minute, but the offside flag was up.

Dwyer should have put the Lions on top in the 18th. Winger Tesho Akindele played and excellent long diagonal that beat Gressel and found Nani on the left wing. Nani delivered a perfect cross to Dwyer in the box, and the center forward sent his shot into the stands.

Justin Meram, who spent a rough half-season with Orlando City in 2018, started at left wingback and drew boos on every touch. Meram was up for the hostility in the first half. He threatened Orlando’s back line with runs down the flank, routinely cutting inside and playing good passes in and around the area.

Meram had an opportunity to score in the second minute, but his free header from a Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez corner went over the bar. As de Boer looked to solidify his defense, Meram subbed off for Florentin Pogba in the 66th minute. He was not cheered.

“Obviously I knew maybe what was coming my way, but I knew what was the task at hand, and we came out with a win,” Meram said. “I felt like we dominated. I think they had one chance with Dwyer early on, but we had a lot of chances tonight. And I think we out-ran them, we out-played them, and I’m just happy to be on this side with this group.

“I knew it was going to be difficult being booed every time I got the ball in warm-ups, but I showed tonight that I can block that out and play my game.”

It was not Pity Martínez’s best night. After playing 90 minutes and excelling during a 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy Saturday, the Argentine did not seem to have as much energy. El Pity had difficulty finding the right pass and keeping possession. He exited in the 80th minute for Héctor “Tito” Villalba. Villalba’s cameo was his first appearance for Atlanta United since May 19. The Paraguay international had been out while recovering from a knee injury.

To Pity Martínez’s credit, he held the ball up well in Atlanta’s attacking third during the move that led to the Five Stripes’ second goal.

Sacha Kljestan should have equalized for Orlando in the 53rd minute, but his open shot from inside 12 yards was well high.

Kljestan and Dwyer both subbed off in the 58th minute. Benji Michel and Chris Mueller entered, and Orlando immediately improved, but the Lions were unable to finish attacking moves during their five-minute stretch on the front foot. Atlanta regrouped and settled the game.

Atlanta dropped into a defensive shell for the final 15 minutes and was content to wait for chances in transition. The Five Stripes sealed the result in the 78th. Remedi lofted a pass and found Escobar open on the left side of the area. Escobar laid off for Emerson Hyndman, who dinked the ball past Grinwis from eight yards. The goal was Hyndman’s first in an Atlanta uniform.

“All I remember is it was a great ball in to me, and obviously I meant to hit it like that,” Hyndman said with a laugh. “But they all count. It was a good moment for the team. We kind of stamped the authority of the game, that finish. From then on we could defend and keep a clean sheet.”

Atlanta will host either Minnesota United or the Portland Timbers in the Open Cup final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, August 27. The winner of that game will receive a trophy and a berth in the 2020 Concacaf Champions League.

“For the club, it’s always important,” de Boer said. “You want to win every title. Also, we [will] play in our own stadium, probably 74,000 people behind us. So it’s going to be a great happening, and we were fighting very hard for it.

“We fought like lions, but still we are hungry for one game more, because second place doesn’t count.”

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