Extra time was needed in the fourth round matchup in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, but in the end Nashville SC outlasted Atlanta United 3-2 on Wednesday.
The result eliminated the 5-Stripes from this year’s competition. As the reigning champions, it also ended the club’s quest to defend its 2019 title.
"We have a very young group and we need to learn from these types of stages where we didn’t succeed this time," head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. "But maybe if we face something similar in the future, this experience will help us."
Atlanta United opened the scoring with a combination play that started on the left flank. Midfielder Marcelino Moreno made a deep pass from the midfield. Defender Andrew Gutman chased down the ball before it ran out-of-bounds and sent a pass near post where midfielder Thiago Almada was making a run. The designated player slipped through to slide a shot far post into net in the 13th minute.
The goal was Almada’s second in all competitions with Atlanta United. His first goal with the club came in MLS play to lead the team’s late comeback and draw CF Montréal 3-3 on March 19.
Atlanta was rewarded for its high work rate again later in the first half. High pressure from Almada created a takeaway deep in Atlanta’s attacking third. Moreno collected the ball and passed it to Araújo making a run inside the box. Araújo’s controlled first touch eluded Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman and set up a left-footed shot that doubled Atlanta’s lead in the 29th minute.
The 5-Stripes went into halftime with a 2-0 lead, but Nashville SC turned up the pressure in the second half. Out of the gate, striker Aké Arnaud Loba drew a foul inside the box. Striker Hany Mukhtar converted the penalty kick to bring Nashville SC within a goal in the 50th minute.
"I felt again that in the first half we did a good job, and the idea was to start the second half the same -- be on the front foot," Pineda said. "Then the penalty comes early in the second half and that mentally affected my players. We couldn’t find that momentum to come back to that kind of football, and when we did we lost the ball right away."
Zimmerman had two headers that were close to becoming goals, including one that bounced off the crossbar in the second half. The center back appeared to find the equalizer on a header following a set piece in the 79th minute but was called offsides.
Atlanta United held a lead all the way into second-half stoppage time, but that's when the home side found the equalizer on a rebounding ball off a set piece. Midfielder Tah Brian Anunga drove the ball into a dangerous area inside the box. Forward C.J. Sapong got on the end of it using his head and redirected it toward goal, drawing the match even at 2-2.
Regulation play ended with a 2-2 tie, which signaled Atlanta United’s first extra time play this season.
Nashville SC broke the draw in the first 15-minute period on a transition play. Forward Ethan Zubak drew Shuttleworth out of position but tripped, which gave the goalkeeper some time to recover. Two Atlanta United defenders scrambled to protect the goal, but it wasn’t enough. Zubak’s shot went through three and gave Nashville its third goal of the night and the eventual game-winner.
"I felt that the team fought," Pineda said. "They did well for many parts, but it’s just that little pieces were not as focused and the opponent is very clinical. The opponent gets one chance and they put it in the net. Congrats to Nashville, they did a good job."
The match was Atlanta United’s first without center back Miles Robinson since the club announced he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in his left leg. In Robinson’s stead, Alex De John made the start and Alan Franco anchored the backline. In an effort to preserve the second-half lead, Pineda sent on George Campbell to sure up the defense with a backline of five. Atlanta's defense finished the night with 16 clearances.
While Atlanta United lately has had the advantage of possession against its opponents, on Wednesday it was much closer. Atlanta United finished with 57.5 percent of the possession, but wasn't able to move the ball as quickly and find space as efficiently in the second half. The team took 19 shots, four on goal, and completed 87 percent of its passes.
"There are little details where we can be more consistent," midfielder Matheus Rossetto said. "We’re scoring two or three goals but we’re working on those little details not to concede. Now we just go back to Atlanta, rest and try to improve every day, every training session, to win as many games as possible.”