Atlanta United defeated Orlando City 2-0 Tuesday night at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, advancing to the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Final. United will host the championship game on Aug. 27 and will be the first Georgia-based club in the 106-year history of the tournament to reach the Final.
“Obviously, it’s an honor to advance to the Final of the US Open Cup,” Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan said after the game. “It’s a storied competition, and it’s something we haven’t accomplished in Atlanta. We have a MLS Cup. We’d love to add another trophy.”
The berth to the final wouldn’t come easy for Atlanta, who were playing on short rest in a raucous environment that saw an Orlando City record crowd of 18,461 come with hopes that the purple and gold would be the club making history, advancing to their first US Open Cup Final and playing for a trophy of their own. Orlando City’s famed “Wall” of supporters pour into the stadium well over an hour prior to kickoff and chant and sing and cheer all the way to the final whistle.
It was a ringing retort to those who wonder if this competition truly “means anything.”
For Orlando, it meant everything.
Entering Tuesday night’s Open Cup contest, Orlando City were winless against Atlanta United in seven tries, posting a 0-5-2 mark that included three losses in Orlando City Stadium. It’s a sore spot for Orlando City supporters, who, with their boisterous crowds and unique supporters culture were the darlings of American soccer before their rivals from the Peach State arrived on the scene in 2017, commanding continental attention with their enormous, record-shattering home crowds and capturing hearts with their free-flowing, open, attacking style of play. As Orlando City struggled on the field, failing to qualify for the playoffs, Atlanta surged to early success, reaching the MLS playoffs in their inaugural campaign and winning MLS Cup, and with it, the city of Atlanta’s second major sports championship last year in only their second season.
The constant defeats to Atlanta and the way Atlanta’s team and soccer culture have quickly become a shining success story within the American soccer fabric, has worn into the psyche of Orlando City players and supporters alike, who greeted Atlanta United with clattering tackles, trash talk, and the collective crowd jeers of a jaded little brother. Even Orlando City’s supporters TIFO was salty; evoking Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, it read: “You and I have unfinished business.”
For all the pregame hype and adrenaline on the Orlando City side, it was all Atlanta United in the early stages. The Five Stripes nearly scored on an early corner, with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez’s unmarked header sailing just over the net. Minutes later, it was Miles Robinson’s turn to latch onto a lovely set piece delivery, but his free header from seven yards drifted surprisingly wide left. Finally, after a Will Johnson foul in zone 14, Pity Martinez’s set piece from a terrific angle deflected off Sacha Kljestan- another golden chance spoiled. Martinez would also miss wide from the run of play in the fifteenth minute, a frustrating start to the game in what has been a disappointing first MLS campaign for the Argentine.
Orlando’s best chance in the first half came when Dom Dwyer latched onto a clever, slicing ball from Nani only to put the ball mystifyingly high from seven yards.
Dwyer came to Orlando City in a record deal worth well over $1.5 million in 2017. Fresh off his first US national team appearances and a strong run of form with Sporting Kansas City, the thought was that Dwyer– who had broken through in professional soccer playing for Orlando City in the club’s USL Pro days–would inject new life into an Orlando City attack that had gone moribund in the wake of Cyle Larin’s injuries and off-field issues and the retirement of the legendary Kaka.
It hasn’t worked according to plan.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) August 7, 2019
Yes, Dwyer has 22 goals for the purple and gold in just over two years. But all too often, especially this season, he’s been absent when the frontline has needed him most, battling with consistency issues and in and out of manager James O’Connor’s doghouse.
When you pay over $700,000 in future allocation money for a player, you expect them to deliver, especially in the club’s biggest moments. That Dwyer didn’t deliver, only 18 minutes into the biggest game in the history of the club that spent so much money to acquire him, changed the complexion of this Open Cup semifinal and sadly for Orlando, may have been the moment the magic ran out of the club’s joyous Open Cup run.
“We need to better in big spots, take our chances,” Orlando City manager James O’Connor said following the game. “I thought we were tentative, and Dom missed a big chance there early, you have to take those. Credit to Atlanta. They don’t miss those.. You wondered if the moment was too large for us at times in the first half.
Put plainly, Orlando weren’t the same side after the Dwyer miss.
Atlanta nearly took the lead in the 29th minute, when deep-lying midfielder Eric Remedi picked up the ball after a corner clearance and made his way to the edge of the area without much resistance before rifling a shot goalward that was turned away by quarterfinal hero Adam Grinwis.
But the breakthrough was coming, and in the 37th minute, the peach-clad Georgians ended the deadlock.
Another late, deep secondary run from Remedi forced Grinwis into a punch save, but Julian Gressel quickly collected the rebound and squared it back to Remedi, who had lingered in the area to finish the play. On the second chance, Remedi didn’t miss, scoring for the first time in Atlanta United’s 2019 campaign and giving Atlanta a 1-0 lead.
The Five Stripes nearly doubled their lead minutes later when Ezequiel Barco dropped off a lovely ball to Pity, but the Argentine’s hard and low effort was parried away well by Grinwis at the far post.
All told, it was a dominant opening half performance from the reigning MLS champs, who controlled possession, had five shots on target to Orlando’s one, and earned eight set piece opportunities (corners, free kicks) to only one for Orlando.
“I think if you see the first half, I think we were much better and I think we could have punished them more than once,” said Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer. “Of course they had one very good chance, but overall the first half was for us and the second half they put a lot of energy in. I think also, of course it’s very tiring after three days you play again and in this heat. I have to give a very big compliment, they fought like Lions, they defended like Lions and also tried to attack.”
Orlando City came on fighting early in the second half.
“We were much better in the second half, we showed character and fight. We spent a good deal of time camped in their half,” O’Connor said.
A good sequence saw Ruan cross well to Dwyer, who appeared to have tremendous position only to see his point blank shot sail high after a spectacular last-ditch challenge from Franco Escobar. In the 53rd minute, it was Sacha Kljestan’s chance to equalize off a Nani dime, only to see the US international arrive just a moment late, failing to hit the chance squarely as it sailed just over Brad Guzan’s net.
By the hour mark, both Dwyer and Kljestan, two of Orlando City’s higher-priced talents, were off the pitch, replaced by homegrown forward Benji Michel, hero of Orlando City’s round of 16 victory, and Chris Mueller, one of the Lions more dynamic attacking talents now filling a bench role.
Mueller and Michel certainly helped Orlando City’s energy, and thanks to a dynamic Sebastián Méndez, the purple and gold certainly kept the pressure on Atlanta United’s defense for much of the second half.
But in the end, it was ultimately Atlanta who would add to their total.
Eric Remedi won a second ball, took a touch towards the center of the midfield and laced a probing ball to Franco Escobar, darting down the left flank. Escobar handled the ball well and crossed to an onrunning Emerson Hyndman in traffic, and the former Fulham and Bournemouth man did the rest, slotting past Grinwis and giving the Five Stripes the insurance goal.
After the second Atlanta goal, the fatigue of a short turnaround and the early August heat put the game in a vise grip, with neither side particularly threatening late as the Five Stripes sealed the 2-0 win.
“We had opportunities and finally we get a relieving goal to score and make it 2-0 and then it was all over,” said de Boer. “I think it was a good performance. You know they’re going to press and try to do everything with two fast guys in, but I think we still managed to do a good job and I’m very proud of the team.”
As for Orlando, the best Open Cup run in club history is over. But there’s lessons to be learned culturally, said Sacha Kljestan, who has played at Supporters Shield winning and Champions League cultures with New York Red Bulls and Anderlecht.
“We are getting better; the culture is getting better,” Kljestan said. “We are learning how to win, but winning is a habit. You have to learn to play in big moments. Atlanta United- they have that culture, having won MLS Cup last season. We’re building it. It sucks right now. People are hurting. The locker room is sad. But the hurt is part of building it, bettering it. The season isn’t over.”
“We are learning how to win. We’re getting better. Winning is a habit. We are building a better culture, but you learn to play in big moments. Atlanta has that culture. For us, It sucks right now, we are hurting, but it’s a part of building it. Season isn’t over.”
Despite a disappointing result, Orlando City fans walk away with something to be proud of. According to TheCup.us records, the announced crowd of 18,461 was the third-largest Semifinal attendance in the 106-year history of the competition.
For Atlanta, they have a chance to become the first Georgia team to win the US Open Cup title, and the team is well aware of the challenge ahead of them.
“It’s never easy to get to a final. It’s a knockout format and that’s never easy,” said Emerson Hyndman. “In the league you can have a bad result and put it right, where as these one-off games they can be difficult if you make it difficult. I thought tonight, obviously playing away from home, we knew it was going to be a difficult game. Thankfully we scored the first goal in the first half and could open up a little bit, good thing we got the clincher. It was a really good feeling all around.”
2019 US Open Cup Round 1: Game-by-game review
2019 US Open Cup Round 2: Game-by-game review
2019 US Open Cup Round 3: Game-by-game review
2019 US Open Cup Round 4: Game-by-game review
2019 US Open Cup Round of 16: Game-by-game review
2019 US Open Cup Quarterfinals: Game-by-game review
THECUP.US PLAYER OF THE ROUND
Round 1: Charles Boateng – Richmond Kickers
Round 2: Bryant Martin – Florida Soccer Soldiers
Round 3: Blake Frischknecht – Orange County FC
Round 4: Teal Bunbury – New England Revolution
Round of 16: Sam Fink – Saint Louis FC
Quarterfinals: Adam Grinwis – Orlando City SC