KENNESAW, Ga. — Emerson Hyndman did not wait long to make an impact for Atlanta United. Fifty-two minutes into his debut, the recently acquired midfielder pressed his opposition in the attacking penalty area, won the ball and laid off to Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez. Pity Martínez scored, and Hyndman had his first assist in an Atlanta shirt. It proved to be the winning moment in Atlanta’s 2-0 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal victory over USL Championship side Saint Louis FC.
“I just saw him facing his own goal and tried to jump it,” Hyndman said of the turnover he created. “Thankfully, he turned the right way for me, and Pity had a great finish.”
Playing the most advanced central midfield role, ahead of Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi, Hyndman started slowly but grew into the game as it went along. He did not see too much of the ball, amassing 54 touches, second-fewest on the team to center forward Josef Martínez. After a mostly anonymous first half, Hyndman found more space by drifting out toward the left flank in the second 45 minutes. He connected on all but four of his passes and provided the sort of darting runs behind Saint Louis’ back line that manager Frank de Boer wants from his players in the attacking phase.
“You see he’s always on the move and it’s difficult to mark him,” de Boer said after the game. “I think he can be very proud. It’s not easy. He doesn’t know his teammates well, what they normally are supposed to do. That takes time.”
One moment in particular, aside from the assist, illustrated what Hyndman brings to his new team. Off a long Saint Louis free kick the 71st minute, Hyndman collected a chested ball from Josef Martínez at midfield and played a first-time pass to spring Justin Meram free in the left channel. Hyndman then sprinted to catch up and was in position to take a pass at the edge of the area. Meram opted to shoot and missed the target, but Hyndman showed he has the wherewithal to start and finish a play.
Hyndman went 87 minutes in the July heat against Saint Louis, which is no small feat considering he was coming off a seven-week stretch without game action. The 23-year-old said he managed to stay match fit with “a lot of hard work. A lot of running, just trying to stay sharp with the ball.”
“The sharpness will come, for sure, the more I get involved,” Hyndman said. “I expected sloppy moments, but in terms of the fitness, I was pleased.”
Atlanta signed Hyndman, a Dallas native, on loan, with an option to purchase, from AFC Bournemouth of the English Premier League. After coming up in the FC Dallas academy, he has spent the past five seasons in England and Scotland. Making it in Europe is the dream for so many American players, but asked if he was at all reluctant to come home and play in Major League Soccer, Hyndman put the focus on his new team, not his new league.
“Not with Atlanta,” he responded. “It was different with Atlanta. They were very ambitious. They obviously already have a great squad. They’re shooting to win things, which is very important to me, so naturally I felt attracted to it immediately. They want to improve every year, and having won a championship, that’s exciting.”
Pity Martínez is still here
Argentine media reported Monday that Pity Martínez was on his way out of Atlanta. De Boer supposedly was ready to move on, and the Five Stripes supposedly were looking for a loan partner to take their high-profile January signing.
The report of El Pity’s death was an exaggeration. He showed up at Fifth Third Bank Stadium Wednesday night, started and enjoyed one of his best performances of the season.
After the 3-3 draw against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, de Boer questioned Pity Martínez’s work rate. The player responded with an energetic showing against Saint Louis, tracking back early and lunging into tackles.
“He will never be Eric Remedi or Darlington Nagbe, but he can also do what he showed today,” de Boer said of Pity Martínez’s defensive work. “And that makes a difference, not only for him, but especially for his teammates.”
Pity Martínez influenced the game early with runs into the area. He took two shots in the first 10 minutes and should have scored when he hit wide with a first-time look from around the penalty spot. He seemed to tire later in the first half while Atlanta faded as a whole, but Pity Martínez continued to threaten while conserving energy by settling back and whipping crosses in from the wing.
Already knocking on the door 👀 pic.twitter.com/jUmFncHYHv
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) July 10, 2019
Pity Martínez played 89 minutes and finished with four chances created, three shots — two of which were on target — and three recoveries. He was named man of the match.
“I thought today he responded [to pressure] how you want a player to respond,” de Boer said. “So that’s good for him, good for me, good for the team, good for the club. So hopefully he can stay on that level. He has to understand this is what we want to see from him, not only making goals but making tackles and everything.”
Meram and Shea dominate on the left
Aside from centerbacks Leandro González-Pírez and Miles Robinson, left back Brek Shea’s 83 touches were the most of any Atlanta outfield player against Saint Louis. Meram’s 72 touches from the left wing were third most, save for the aforementioned central defenders. The two linked up all night. Their final passes in the attacking third should have been sharper for most of the evening, but they created a combined seven chances.
“Obviously Justin’s on a roll right now, playing really well,” Shea said after the game. “Give him the ball and let him go at the defense, so that’s what I tried to do. Give him space or make runs to create space.”
Not only did Meram and Shea create for each other on the left, their connection forced Saint Louis to overcompensate defensively, which is what freed up space for Hyndman on that side.
Saint Louis bunkered for most of the game. That was to be expected considering the USL-v-MLS matchup and the fact that the visitors were managed by Anthony Pulis, son of notorious bus-parker Tony Pulis. De Boer and his staff identified right back Matt Bahner as the potential weak link in Saint Louis’ low block.
“We knew that their right fullback was not the best in one-against-one,” the manager said. “You see on [Atlanta’s] right, that Franco [Escobar] was a lot of times high up and Pity inside, but on the other side we wanted Justin really wide and get him into the one-against-one against the fullback.
“You saw a lot of times he dribbled past him and maybe the end pass was not really there, but still there was every time danger from there. That’s what we wanted to exploit. Sometimes Brek was outside or Brek made the run behind from the inside. That’s what we asked from them. We trained it very short [on Tuesday]. They executed the plan that we wanted.”