Nic Firmino leads Atlanta United into U.S. Open Cup round of 16

Atlanta United midfielder Nick Firmino #30 dribbles the ball during the US Open Cup match against the Charlotte Independence at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, GA on Tuesday May 7, 2024. (Photo by  Madelaina Polk/Atlanta United)

Credit: Madelaina Polk/Atlanta United

Credit: Madelaina Polk/Atlanta United

Atlanta United midfielder Nick Firmino #30 dribbles the ball during the US Open Cup match against the Charlotte Independence at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, GA on Tuesday May 7, 2024. (Photo by Madelaina Polk/Atlanta United)

Two goals by Atlanta United’s Nic Firmino and another by Daniel Rios in the U.S. Open Cup against Charlotte Independence on Tuesday helped the team achieve two important things: A 3-0 victory with advancement to the next round, and a boost of confidence in ending its five-match winless streak.

“When you win, you have a solid performance like I think we had today, that brings confidence to the players, the overall group of players,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “I think at times there are certain games like these that can be a game-changer and see some changes for us and hopefully this is the trigger for the players to start to click on and to have the more confidence.”

It worked for Atlanta United in 2019, when it struggled earlier in the season but used earlier-round matches in the U.S. Open Cup to find a form good enough to not only carry it to that trophy but also to the Eastern Conference finals in the MLS playoffs.

Firmino’s goals were his second and third for Atlanta United, which will learn after Wednesday’s match between Tormenta and Charleston where it will play next in the tournament on May 21 or 22. Atlanta United will be the visiting team in the round of 16.

Atlanta United improved to 9-4 in the U.S. Open Cup. The shutout was the team’s fourth this season.

Pineda selected a lineup composed of a mix of experience. Rios started at striker with Firmino as attacking midfielder, Luke Brennan and Ashton Gordon as wingers, Jay Fortune and Dax McCarty as midfielders, Ronald Hernandez and Matt Edwards as fullbacks, Stian Gregersen and Efrain Morales as centerbacks, and Josh Cohen in goal.

Edwards and Gordon were signed to short-term agreements on Monday from Atlanta United 2. It was the first Atlanta United starts for Cohen, Edwards and Gordon. Pineda said Gordon started because of the injury to Tyler Wolff. Pineda said there were other players he could have selected but he feels that it was important to Gordon, who recently turned 17, to get the experience of playing in a meaningful match with first-team players.

Pineda said on Monday that the coaching staff was working on simplifying certain unspecified things to try to improve the players’ confidence. It was Gregersen’s first start since March 24 because he underwent surgery on his left knee. However, he was forced to leave the match in the ninth minute. He was checked for a concussion on the sidelines by the team’s medical staff. Noah Cobb was subbed into the match in the 11th minute.

Pineda said the team executed well against an opponent that was more interested in playing defense than trying to attack. Charlotte used three centerbacks with two wingbacks, part of a defensive formation that has vexed Atlanta United this season, including most recently when used by Minnesota United in its 2-1 win over the Five Stripes last week.

Firmino thought the more basic approach helped.

“Going back to the basics of football, passing and moving, defending as a team, attacking as a team,” he said. “I thought we simplified it today, created a lot of chances. And we’re happy with the clean sheet as well.”

Atlanta United got some good luck in the 28th minute when Hernandez tripped Juan Carlos Obregon in the 18-yard box. Referee Lorenzo Hernandez judged the foul to have happened inches outside, resulting in a free kick rather than a penalty kick.

Atlanta United finished the first half with nine shots, putting one on goal. Its best chance came when McCarty played Brennan into space down the right. His cross connected with Gordon but his shot was smothered by Charlotte goalkeeper Austin Pack, who played in high school at Chattahoochee, around the 28th minute.

Charlotte’s first shot on goal came in the 58th minute. It was hit by former Manchester United and Newcastle player Gabriel Obertan.

Atlanta United took a 1-0 lead in the 52nd minute in a goal by Firmino, with assists from Brennan and Edwards. McCarty again found Brennan on the right and he laid off the ball to Edwards as he made his overlapping run. Edwards hit a cut-back cross toward the 12-yard spot. McCarty continued his run into the box and into the path of the cross. But he ran past the ball, causing the defenders to hesitate and giving Firmino space to place his shot into the lower left corner.

“The more we let them hang around 60 or 70 minutes, they start getting more belief,” Firmino said.

Atlanta United began peppering Charlotte’s goal with shots by Firmino, Rios and McCarty saved in the next few minutes.

Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley came on for Edwards and Gordon in the 64th minute.

Firmino struck again in the 71st minute from another cut-back cross, this time from Wiley, who was credited with the assist. Atlanta United again made its own after a pass by Cohen went over the heads of Rios and a Charlotte defender in its half of the field with the ball bouncing to Wiley behind the defenders.

Pineda said the cut-back crosses were a tactic the team used to try to beat a back five. The centerbacks will typically stay on the same line as the ball, leaving space between them and the midfielders when the ball is almost at the end line, as it was on the crosses before Firmino’s goals. Pineda said Rios did a good job occupying the centerbacks and Firmino did a good job getting into usable spaces.

Bartosz Slisz and Xande Silva subbed on for McCarty and Brennan after the goal to help the team finish the result.

Rios scored the third goal in the 85th minute from an assist by Silva. It was a reward for a night of hard work by Rios, Pineda said. In the first half, Rios would frequently move back toward the midfielders when they had the ball in order to bring a centerback with him and allow either Fortune or Firmino to then try to move into the newly created space.

Atlanta United will host D.C. United in Saturday as it returns to MLS action.

“Even if it’s Open Cup, it’s a lift up for the rest of the team,” Rios said. “Obviously, we tried really hard to win the last four games and we didn’t. Most of them we were up in the score at first, but things were the way they were. We tried to shift it tonight. That’s what we did. We were patient, we were good with the ball, we were linking up, at the end is 3-0, which is good for the team.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

March 9 Atlanta United 4, New England 1

March 17 Atlanta United 2, Orlando 0

March 23 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 0

March 31 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 0

April 6 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

April 14 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

April 20 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

April 27 Atlanta United 1, Chicago 1

May 4 Minnesota 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte Independence 0 (U.S. Open Cup)

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FOX

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

July 26 vs. D.C. United in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 4 vs. Santos Laguna in Leagues Cup, 4 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.