MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United won the U.S. Open Cup Tuesday night, and the champagne flowed. The locker room celebration was so rowdy, the championship trophy broke to pieces. Josef Martinez declared, “We are the [expletive] champions,” in between gulps of Bud Light.
But the season is not over. Atlanta travels to Philadelphia to meet the Union Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET with first place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference on the line. Atlanta and Philadelphia are tied on 48 points, with the Five Stripes holding the wins tiebreaker. Manager Frank de Boer has spoken on the importance of the first-round bye and home-field playoffs advantage the comes with the No. 1 seed. Atlanta must stave off an Open Cup hangover to stay in the driver’s seat for that prize.
“It’s difficult … because we won and already tomorrow we have to travel and play in a big league game,” Franco Escobar said Thursday at the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground. “We knew that was always the case. What’s important for us now is we are still fighting to be where we want, which is at the top of the table, and working hard to accomplish goals for the season.”
The Union are enjoying their best-ever campaign. A win Saturday would set the club’s points record with five games remaining. (Philadelphia won 50 points last season, but that was only good for sixth in the East.) The Union have scored 51 goals, second-most in MLS, through high pressing and passing possession. De Boer credited Jim Curtain’s side for having quality, versatile talent throughout the roster. Philadelphia has technical players, such as Ilsinho, Marco Fabián and Alejandro Bedoya who are good on the ball — Bedoya will miss this game due to a yellow-card suspension — and attacking speed in the likes of Fafà Picault and Jamiro Monteiro. Up top is the bruising, 6-foot-4 center forward, Kacper Przybyłko. Brenden Aaronson is Philly’s promising, young American who seems to have a future with the national team.
Aaronson, 18, scored his first MLS goal in the teams’ last meeting, a 1-1 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in March. Philadelphia has been consistently good all year, but Atlanta has evolved.
“That was at the beginning of the season,” Escobar said. “We were coming off playing Concacaf [Champions League] games. The confidence level wasn’t the same with the all the changes, getting used to a new coaching staff. But I think now we are better adjusted. You can see we are playing well and in good form. Philadelphia is a good team and playing well also. It should be a good game. We are a different team now.”
Escobar still is recovering from a hamstring injury and will not start, though he should be in the game-day 18. Ezequiel Barco picked up a muscle injury during the Open Cup final and is a doubt to travel. Clearly, the Five Stripes cannot expect to exit Talen Energy Stadium with all three points if they are not switched on for 90 minutes. While a draw would not be the worst result for their standing against Philadelphia, it would damage Atlanta in the race for first. New York City FC is on 47 points with a game in hand over the Five Stripes.
De Boer’s players need to make a quick turnaround and get their mentality right.
“That’s what we have to do, whether we like it or not,” Miles Robinson said Thursday. “We celebrated two nights ago when we could, but then you’ve just got to flip the switch, because we all realize how big of a game this is coming up.”
The Five Stripes will be playing their eighth match in the month of August, but de Boer believes his team is in good shape physically. His job this week is to make sure Tuesday’s celebration does not carry over and create a lax performance Saturday. The kind of reputation Atlanta is building requires the team to achieve success and immediately move on.
“Physical-wise, we have to handle that, no problem,” the manager said. “Mentally-wise, it’s more difficult. But if we want to be known as a top team, top teams are winning titles and then the next day performing again. We have to show that we are a top team, a top club. So that will be my main talk to my players.
“We want more. We are more hungry. That means that we have to show our quality against Philly.”