Atlanta United bounced out of Leagues Cup by Cruz Azul

Atlanta United midfielder Tristan Muyumba #8 dribbles the ball during the match against Cruz Azul at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Saturday July 29, 2023. (Photo by Asher Greene/Atlanta United)

Credit: Asher Greene/Atlanta United

Credit: Asher Greene/Atlanta United

Atlanta United midfielder Tristan Muyumba #8 dribbles the ball during the match against Cruz Azul at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA on Saturday July 29, 2023. (Photo by Asher Greene/Atlanta United)

Atlanta United’s short run in the Leagues Cup ended with a 5-4 loss in six rounds of penalty kicks to Cruz Azul on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The match ended 1-1 after 90 minutes, forcing the PKs.

The hosts failed to be one of the two teams to advance out of their three-team group because of the loss to the Mexican club on top of Tuesday’s 4-0 loss at Miami.

Thiago Almada scored in the 75th minute to snap the team’s scoreless streak at 233 minutes. In the penalty kicks, Miguel Berry’s shot was saved and JuanJo Purata missed.

“Very disappointed with this one,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “But this is football. I saw a big, big improvement in the team.”

With the loss, Atlanta United hasn’t won a match of importance since it defeated Philadelphia 2-0 in the Eastern Conference playoff semifinals in 2019. It has failed to make it into the playoffs in two of the past three seasons and its results during the ongoing league season are trending negatively. With its exit from the Leagues Cup, Atlanta United will turn its attention back toward trying to move up the table, where it is above the playoff line in seventh place. It next plays at Seattle on Aug. 20.

Saturday’s loss was the result of not being clinical in front of both goals, something Pineda said on Friday must improve. Offensively, the team pressured Cruz Azul’s goal but didn’t create enough quality chances. It finished with 0.98 expected goals on four shots on goal. Defensively, an individual error gifted Cruz Azul an opportunity that it took advantage of. Cruz Azul finished with 0.46 expected goals on three shots on goal.

“Our final-third play probably wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “But the second half, making the adjustments at halftime ... we were all over (them), just needed a goal, another one. But the difference from Tuesday to tonight was massive.”

Pineda made a few changes to the lineup that was beaten by Miami. Tristan Muyumba received his first start in central midfield, paired with Matheus Rossetto and Amar Sejdic, another change. Ronald Hernandez moved into the lineup at right fullback with Brooks Lennon moving up to play right wing with Thiago Almada on the left wing. Caleb Wiley moved from left wing to left fullback. Miles Robinson and Luis Abram started as the centerbacks, with Guzan in goal and Giorgos Giakoumakis as striker.

An individual error, a problem all season for Atlanta United, resulted in Cruz Azul taking a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute. Hernandez made the error, leaving his man, Moises Vieira, to move over to join Robinson in attempting to win an aerial duel with Carlos Rotondi about 12 yards from goal. Rotondi won the header. The ball went to Vieira, who had a clear shot that he hammered. Hernandez said he went for the duel because he thought he would win it.

Atlanta United may have felt hard done by two non-calls in the first half. In the opening two minutes, Giakoumakis was tripped in the 18-yard box during a scramble. Referee Oliver Vergara Rodriguez made no call, nor did he choose to use VAR (Video Assistant Referee). In the 32nd minute, a Cruz Azul defender inadvertently kicked the ball into his own arm while under pressure from Lennon. Again, no call and no use of VAR. Soccer’s rules state that a ball kicked by a player into their own hand isn’t a handball.

Atlanta United’s scoreless first half stretched its streak without a goal to 203 minutes.

Giakoumakis created a couple of scoring opportunities that were unsuccessful in the opening minutes of the second half.

Pineda subbed on Edwin Mosquera and Ozzie Alonso for Sejdic and Hernandez, with Lennon dropping to right fullback, in the 63rd minute.

Almada snapped the scoreless streak and tied the match for Atlanta United with a right-footed shot in the 75th minute. The shot went between the legs of a Cruz Azul defender as it curled into the lower right corner.

Purata was subbed on for Wiley in the 80th minute.

A Giakoumakis shot from 12 yards was deflected over the goal in the 84th minute. Giakoumakis was clearly frustrated after the miss, throwing up his arms.

Berry replaced Rossetto in the 89th minute.

In the penalty kicks, Lennon went first and converted his in the lower left corner. Carlos Salcedo hit the crossbar, giving Atlanta United a 1-0 advantage after the first round.

Muyumba went second and hit his into the lower left corner. Jose Rivero ran up and didn’t touch the ball on his first pass in a very unusual tactic. Rivero went again and buried the shot into the upper right corner. Atlanta United led 2-1.

Berry went third. His shot, low and to the right, was saved by Sebastian Jurado. Christian Tabo hammered his to tie the penalty kicks at two.

Almada went fourth and converted his into the upper right corner. Rotondi answered with a shot into lower left corner to tie the PKs at three.

Giakoumakis went fifth and placed his into the lower right corner, giving Atlanta United a 4-3 lead and putting all of the pressure on Cruz Azul’s Carlos Antuna. He answered by putting his shot into the upper right corner.

Purata went sixth and missed his shot wide left, giving Cruz Azul an opening to win. Augusto Lotti converted to win the penalty kicks, 5-4.

“The chances were there and at the end of the day, it’s football,” Sejdic said. “Success is very, very, very hard. And we just have to go back to the drawing board and get ready for Seattle in August and look for a home playoff spot.”

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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1

March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1

March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0

March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1

March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1

April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0

April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1

April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2

April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1

April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1

May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1

May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1

May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0

May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3

May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3

June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0

June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1

June 21 Atlanta United 2, New York City 2

June 24 New York Red Bulls 4, Atlanta United 0

July 2 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0

July 8 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

July 12 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

July 15 Orlando City 2, Atlanta United 1

July 25 Miami 4, Atlanta United 0 in Leagues Cup

July 29 Cruz Azul 5, Atlanta United 4

Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.

Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA