Atlanta United faced Liga MX club Cruz Azul Saturday in the final match of South 3 group play of 2023 Leagues Cup. In an intense, win-or-go-home match, Cruz Azul defeated Atlanta 5-4 on penalty kicks after ending regulation tied 1-1. The result eliminates Atlanta from the tournament.
Brooks Lennon, Tristan Muyumba, Miguel Berry, Thiago Almada, Giorgos Giakoumakis and Juanjo Purata took penalty kicks in the shootout in that order. Cruz Azul missed its first kick by hitting the crossbar but made the following five. Berry's shot was saved, and Purata's shot went wide.
"Very disappointed with this one," Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. "I think we deserve better, but this is football. I saw a big, big improvement with the team. I thought we did a good job in many, many different phases of the game. Football is like this. We couldn't succeed on this one. We will be reflecting and trying to assess our performance overall and try to be better."
After a long 55 minutes, midfielder Thiago Almada found the equalizer in the 75th minute to get Atlanta back in the match. After chipping the ball out to Brooks Lennon in the right corner, he continued his run into the box. A Cruz Azul defender cleared the ball, but it landed right at Almada’s feet. He hit it low, through traffic, into the back of the net to even the score at 1-1.
Cruz Azul opened the scoring in the 20th minute. After earning a throw in toward their attacking third, the ball was headed twice and landed inside the box. Midfielder Moisés Vierira was unmarked on the left side and volleyed the ball into the top of the net to give Cruz Azul the 1-0 lead.
The LIGA MX side nearly doubled their lead in the 37th minute after Carlos Antuna won the ball near midfield. He took his space up the right side of the field before blasting a low shot toward the far corner. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan made a diving save to push the ball out for a corner.
Atlanta had good ball movement in the first half that led to multiple near opportunities. Caleb Wiley made a run down the left side in the 25th minute before cutting it back to Giorgos Giakoumakis inside the box, but his shot was deflected for a corner. A few minutes later, Ronald Hernández played a long ball over Cruz Azul’s backline intended for Brooks Lennon. The ball looked to have bounced off the hand of a defender inside the box, but no foul was called.
The 5-Stripes almost found the equalizer twice at the start of the second half. Defender Luis Abram found Giakoumakis, who took a touch to get past his defender before hitting a half volley that forced a save from goalkeeper Jurado Sebastián. Soon after, Atlanta maintained possession in the midfield before Matheus Rossetto went for a shot about 30 yards out, but his shot was high.
"The first half, our final third play probably wasn't as sharp as it needed to be," Guzan said, "but the second half, making the adjustments at halftime, we were all over them. We just needed another goal."
Giakoumakis was inches away from scoring multiple times within the second half. Almada sent in service from a free kick that found the head of the Greek striker but the ball went just outside the right post. Then Lennon sent a cross into the box that ended at the feet of Giakoumakis. He paused before turning to shoot, but the ball bounced off the back of a Cruz Azul defender.
In the dying minutes of regulation, both sides nearly found the winning goal. After Cruz Azul earned a corner, Carlos Rotondi received the ball and took a shot, but it was an easy save for Guzan. Atlanta then earned a free kick, and defender Miles Robinson's header was aimed right at Sebastián.
Midfielder Tristan Muyumba made his first appearance Saturday for Atlanta since he was signed to the club earlier this month during the summer transfer window. Muyumba played the full 90 minutes, and he made his penalty kick in the shootout.
"You always watch film on signings, and you're excited about that and what they can be, but you never know until you see him live," Pineda said. "There were good moments in training sessions, and today you saw what (Muyumba) can bring... and he's still not 100% fit. Looking forward to his development and his integration to the team."
Up next – Atlanta returns to MLS play in late August
Atlanta will take a three-week break before it returns to the pitch for league play. The 5-Stripes will head to Washington to face Western Conference club Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field on Sunday, August 20.
"We just need to build off of the performance tonight and put the pieces together even better and really keep buzzing for the final stretch," Amar Sejdić said.