A storybook breakaway goal from Kwado Poku in stoppage time helped Miami FC defeat Atlanta United 3-2 Wednesday night at Riccardo Silva Stadium in Miami.
The thrilling victory marks the second-consecutive year an NASL side based in south Florida has reached the quarterfinals of the Open Cup, after the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale Strikers accomplished the feat in 2016.
It was a deserved result for the hosts, who created the better chances throughout the second half. Miami captain Michael Lahoud credited the side’s character.
“I think Atlanta was shell-shocked. Usually how it works is the MLS side scores the first goal and the lower division side gives up,” Lahoud said. “We didn’t. We kept going, and it says everything about who we are.”
Manager Alessandro Nesta agreed with his captain’s assessment.
“For us it’s important, for the coaching staff and the players,” Nesta said. “This is a dream for us — but a dream costs nothing. You have to believe and you have to have the character to work to get it right.”
Nesta added his side needed character on a night they made plenty of mistakes.
“We didn’t play our best football; the possession was sloppy and we made mistakes,” he said. “But we fought through it, and we beat a team managed by Tata Martino. Managing him is an honor. Beating him is … wow,” the Italian legend said with a smile. “But now — we go back to work.”
Early on, however, Martino’s Atlanta took the initiative, a high line and withering pressure pinning Miami FC back. The pressure earned Atlanta two bright early chances to take the lead. First, an uncharacteristic turnover from Lahoud sent Julian Gressel and Kevin Kratz crashing towards the goal, only to see Kratz’s blast parried away by Miami goalkeeper Danie Vega. Minutes later, it was Atlanta’s 17-year-old hometown star Andrew Carleton slaloming through the orange and blue defense and again forcing Vega to punch-save away.
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Eventually, Miami adjusted to the frenetic tempo of the match, however, and were able to settle the game, and even earn chances on the break, exploiting number advantages through the middle thanks to Atlanta’s high defensive line. Miami nearly took the lead in minute 28, a blast from Dylan Mares with a defender on the shoulder saved bravely by Atlanta’s Alec Kann.
In the 34th minute, however, it was Atlanta who made the breakthrough, with another talented Atlanta youngster, Brandon Vazquez heading home on a set piece. The goal was the first set piece goal in Atlanta United’s young club history, and also marked the first time in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup that Miami FC trailed.
The lead for the MLS visitors was short-lived.
Only three minutes later, Chris McCann gave the ball away near midfield and Kwadwo Poku deftly played a pass to Stefano Pinho. The Brazilian forward, who was TheCup.us’ Player of the Round for Round 4, turned his defender with a slick stepover and finished far post, tying the game.
Both teams had splendid chances to enter the halftime dressing rooms with a lead. First, Stefano Pinho collected a Richie Ryan pass on the left wing and darted past Tyrone Mears, only to see his hard and high shot blocked away by Kann. Then it was Atlanta’s turn to nearly score on a dynamic run, with Carleton attacking a pocket of space between the Miami FC CB’s and volleying just over Vega’s net. All told, it was fair the sides were level at the half, with chances created and possession nearly level.
The second half began with more Atlanta pressure, but this time, Miami made the adjustment, cycling the ball quickly through Lahoud to the wings and attacking the young Atlanta flanks. One such sequence helped Miami earn a free kick in the 51st minute. Moments later, Rhett Bernstein’s head met Hunter Freeman’s parabola service, beating Alec Kann and giving Miami FC a 2-1 lead.
Lahoud credited Miami’s fitness for withstanding Atlanta’s high pressure, and ultimately, helping the side gain a bit of control in the match.
“I don’t think Atlanta took us lightly,” Lahoud said. “They are fighting for their playoff lives and they are managing their schedule. They rested some players, but they played their game. With the high pressure they play, if you come down to Miami, good luck in this heat and humidity. They just couldn’t sustain it.”
For a good spell after the hosts took the lead, it looked like they’d add to it.
Another McCann giveaway sent Miami off to the races, Poku playing a soft ball to Enzo Renella, who chipped across Pinho, who beat a defender to the ball but clipped his volley just high far post.
The near-miss seemed to revive Atlanta, who ratcheted up the pressure until Andrew Carleton changed the game again in the 74th minute, dribbling past a pursuing Blake Smith and putting a shimmy on Poku, who chopped him down in the area. Referee Jose Carlos Rivero pointed to the spot, and Julian Gressel, one of the stars of Atlanta’s inaugural MLS campaign, calmly scored to level the proceedings.
Once again, as befitting the rollicking back and forth nature of this match, both sides had tremendous chances to score the vital third goal.
A series of fast, physical counterattacking runs by Pinho and Poku gave Miami two fine chances, only to see Rennella miss cutback passes to Poku in space on each occasion. Meanwhile, Atlanta would pressure Miami centrally, with substitution Lagos Kunga, a veteran of the U.S. U-20 World Cup quarterfinalists, doing well to peel away Miami defenders and create space for Kratz and Vazquez to run on centrally.
With extra time — and lightning — looming on the near horizon, Miami had one final chance to win in regulation. Rennella and Poku won a midfield fifty-fifty, with the latter emerging with the ball and making a final barrel towards the Atlanta net. With Atlanta’s Carlos Carmona closing, Poku managed to stay upright and hit a soft shot past an onrushing Kann, sending the crowd of 9,404 into raptures and the hosts into the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup quarterfinals. For Poku, it was his 9th career US Open Cup goal.
Miami will host the quarterfinal against FC Cincinnati (USL) on July 12.