For the second consecutive season, Atlanta United failed to advance past the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup.
A goal from Nemanja Nikolic was enough to push Chicago past the Five Stripes 1-0 on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of a record crowd.
With a chance at winning their first trophy over after two tournament games, Atlanta United will turn its attention back to MLS, where it leads the league with 33 points. Atlanta United will host Portland (6-3-4) on Sunday. The Timbers are unbeaten in eight games. Atlanta United was knocked out of last year’s tournament by Miami, 3-2.
“That’s football,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “We created enough chances at minimum to tie the game -- I think we deserved that.”
The only thing that may not be considered disappointing about the rather lackluster performance by Atlanta United was the game set a U.S. Open Cup attendance record with 41,012 tickets sold and distributed. The previous record was 35,615, set at the 2011 U.S. Open Cup final between Seattle and Chicago at CenturyLink Field. Atlanta United also holds MLS attendance records for a single game (72,035) and season (48,401).
Martino continued his pattern of starting the lesser-used players with striker Romario Williams, midfielders Hector Villalba, Kevin Kratz and Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu (making his first start), defenders Sal Zizzo and Miles Robinson, and goalkeeper Alec Kann among the starting 11.
Their lack of chemistry was evident in a mostly flat first half after the first 10 minutes. Chicago, which used several of its starters including Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger, had the better chances, but Kann kept the game scoreless with several strong saves.
Martino said he wasn’t surprised that Chicago put out a strong lineup. Because they are in seventh with 19 points in the East, winning the U.S. Open Cup may be their chance at success this season. Chicago has won the tournament four times, but its most recent title came in 2006.
“We know they are in a difficult place in the league and might want to give everything they have in the U.S. Open Cup,” he said. “At the end of the day that’s not why we lost the game. I don’t think you can say the result was a factor of the difference between the two teams. Even though we put out some younger players, we know they have an experienced team but it was fairly even.”
Chicago broke through in the 54th minute on a tap-in by Nikolic. Aleksandar Katai drew defenders to him on the left before laying it off in the middle to Schweinsteiger, who passed it to Luis Solignac down the left. His pass across was met by Nikolic.
In an attempt to spark the moribund offense, Martino subbed in Ezequiel Barco and Julian Gressel in place of Vazquez and Kratz in the 62nd minute.
The offense did start to see sparks, but they didn’t create the roaring flame that has carried it to the most goals (33) in the league this season.
“It’s unfortunate that it took us getting scored on to really start pushing the game and looking dangerous in the attacking third,” Kann said. “Once we did that it was unfortunate that the ball didn’t bounce the right way to get it tied up and push it to extra time.”
Atlanta United came close in the 72nd minute when a shot from Villalba bounced off the face of Chicago’s Dax McCarty and then went off the post for a corner kick.
That was about it.
Even with the two regular starters in the lineup, Atlanta United failed to have consistent chemistry in attack. Combination passes fizzled out before pulling Chicago apart. Runs were stopped as passes were made. The defense wasn’t tested too often. Atlanta United took 14 shots, putting just four on goal. It created just six chances.
“We could have had a goal or two early in the game and kind of settled our nerves a little bit,” Williams said. “Unfortunately, we were off by a couple of inches or two. That’s just the nature of the game sometimes.”
Atlanta United’s last good chance came in stoppage time when Wheeler-Omiunu stole the ball near midfield, carried it forward and found Barco, but his cross was easily caught by Richard Sanchez at the near post.
Villalba tried his luck on the opposite side of the goal, but his cross was parried by Sanchez and no Atlanta United player could catch up to the ball.
Almiron tried a looping header seconds later. Sanchez was there again.
“I thought we played well,” Villalba said. “Maybe we were missing that final touch on a few of the goal-scoring situations. Maybe we needed to press a little more and make us feel out homefield advantage more.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.