Atlanta United’s future may have been on the field in the final minutes of its 3-2 loss to Miami in the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday on the campus of FIU.
Helping the team to rally to tie the score at 2-2, only to see the winning goal scored in the final minutes of injury time, were 18-year-old Brandon Vazquez, who scored the team’s first goal, 17-year-old Andrew Carleton, who made his first start, and 18-year-old Lagos Kunga, an academy player who had recently signed a four-day contract.
None looked out of place against a Miami team filled with players with MLS experience.
Vazquez not only scored — it was his second goal in as many U.S. Open Cup game and third in all competitions — but in one sequence he beat his man off the dribble, found Carleton streaking into space in the penalty box, and hit him with a pass. Carleton’s volleyed shot sailed just wide.
It was a play made by two guy who seem very confident.
“Tata (Gerardo Martino) always tells us to be confident in ourselves and play one-on-one on the wings,” Vazquez said. “It was a positive play.”
Carleton, making his second appearance for the team, started well, but said he tailed off a bit in the first half, and then found a rhythm again. It was a foul called on Kwadwo Poku, who was trying to stop Carleton in a one-on-one situation, that resulted in the penalty kick that tied the score at 2-2. Julian Gressel, a 23-year-old, converted the penalty.
Carleton and Vazquez fulfilled their defensive duties in the Martino’s pressing system, and often switched sides of the field on offense to give Miami’s players different looks.
“I thought it was a decent game for myself,” Carleton, a native of Powder Springs, said.
Kunga was the biggest surprise. It was announced less than two weeks ago that he, George Bello and Patrick Okonkwo, are going to sign Homegrown Player contracts with Atlanta United in January.
On Sunday, he and Carleton were playing in the MLS academy tournament.
Next, they were told they were headed to Miami.
Next, Kunga wasn’t sure he was going to be in the 18. Then, he was.
Next, he wasn’t sure he was going to play. And then Martino started calling his name and he saw his number go up on the board in the 65th minute.
“It’s been crazy,” he said. “I tried to hold it all in. this whole year has been crazy for me.”
Kunga looked lively. He had one shot that sailed over the bar and created one chance.
“He looked sharp to me,” Carleton said. “He came on and made an impact off the bench.
“Awesome you’ve played with someone in the youth system, to be able to be on the field at the same time as him, is just another example of the youth that are coming through Atlanta now.”