The game started with a lightning delay of 2 ½ hours and ended with Atlanta United defeating Charleston 3-2 in the U.S. Open Cup on goals by Kevin Kratz, Josef Martinez and Brandon Vazquez.
What happened in between made Atlanta United’s first game in the nation’s oldest soccer tournament one of the wackiest the team has played this season. Three players made their debuts with Atlanta United, though two didn’t make it past the half.
Another player notched his first goal, two more had their first assists and one his second goal.
Atlanta United will find out its opponent in the fifth round of the tournament at 11 a.m. Thursday. The game will be played June 28.
But first Martino will have tough personnel decisions with another home game looming on Saturday against Columbus. Eighth in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta United can’t afford to drop points, but it was forced to use two of its best players, Martinez and Miguel Almiron, for 90-plus minutes in subduing Charleston in front of a paid attendance of 9,458 at Kennesaw State’s Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
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Martino was also forced to put together a centerhalf partnership of Jeff Larentowicz and Mark Bloom, two guys who haven’t played the position this season, for the final 30 minutes.
Martino gave several players their first starts this season: Zach Loyd, Miles Robinson, Anton Walkes, Chris McCann and Brandon Vazquez. It was also the first appearances for Loyd, acquired in the expansion draft, and Robinson, the team’s first draft pick.
While most of the attention was being paid to Martinez, who was making his first start since the season’s third game, the defense was also interesting because if featured three new starters in Walkes, Loyd and Robinson, and Bloom, a Marietta native making his third start.
The group didn’t get off to the best of starts.
Charleston took a 1-0 lead in the 3rd minute when centerhalf Forrest Lasso headed in a long throw-in by O’Brian Woodbine from 6 yards out. Lasso outmuscled Robinson to nod the ball into the opposite corner. Atlanta United has had issues defending balls in the air this season.
After the goal, there were misplayed passes, a lack of expected runs and the rust that is a product of the lack of familiarity that could be expected from a group of starters that had rarely played together before.
Atlanta United started to settle down on offense, though it still often seemed one good pass away from opening up a seam in Charleston’s defense that would result in the tying goal.
Almiron came close near the 25th minute with a left-footed shot that sailed wide. Martinez came close in the 28th minute with a right-footed shot that sailed just over Odisnel Cooper’s goal.
Larentowicz tried his luck next in the 29th minute with a low, bouncing shot that was inches wide. But it led to something good because on the ensuing corner kick Atlanta United tied it on a goal by Kratz, his first for the team, in the 30th minute. He trapped a deflected shot from 6 yards away and scored with a right-footed shot.
Charleston took a 2-1 lead less than a minute later on a goal Dante Marini. His shot from 30 yards away bounced off Robinson’s foot and looped over Alec Kann’s head.
Charleston wasted a chance to take a 3-1 lead when Woodbine missed a penalty kick. An Atlanta United defender was called for pulling someone down in the penalty box during a corner kick. Woodbine’s shot sailed over Kann’s goal in the 45th minute.
Martino made two unusual subs at halftime with midfielder Julian Gressel and left fullback Mikey Ambrose in for Robinson and Loyd. It’s rare for a manager to sub out two players on defense. Larentowicz dropped into the centerhalf pairing with Walkes, with Bloom moving from left fullback to right.
Atlanta United tied the game 2-2 on a Martinez header from a Vazquez cross in the 48th minute. It was his first assist this season and Martinez’s sixth goal this season.
Martino was forced to his third and final sub in the 60th minute when Walkes went down with an injury. He was replaced by Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu, also making his debut.
That forced Martino to shift Bloom inside to play alongside Larentowicz.
Ambrose repaid Martino by running to a pass from Almiron and crossing it to Vazquez to tap in and give Atlanta United a 3-2 lead. It was Vazquez’s second goal this season and Ambrose’s first assist in his second appearance.