July 9th, 2014 (Atlanta, GA)- Despite a Spring season that saw the Atlanta Silverbacks finish eighth in the NASL standings, they advanced to the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup having beaten two MLS sides, Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids, en route. This time, it was the Chicago Fire who visited Silverbacks Park and it was the Fire who left with a 3-1 win.
The first half ended 0-0 but it wasn’t without scoring chances and drama. The Silverbacks, looking as composed as they have all season, created a number of chances beginning with Junior Sandoval’s one on one attempt in the fifth minute. Former MLS midfielder Blair Gavin sent a long ball down the right flank that found Sandoval who maneuvered into the box but was stoned by former Silverbacks goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Minutes later Sandoval dribbled along the top of the 18 only to see his shot go wide. Junior Burgos also had a couple of nice attempts, one of which was narrowly tipped over the bar denying the Silverbacks once again.
The Silverbacks controlled the first half in possession and chances. They were clearly the better side but went to half with nothing to show.
“I felt like we played really well tonight, just a little unlucky, a little sloppy on the offensive third,” said defender Mike Randolph.
The Silverbacks prowess wasn’t the only note of interest in the opening frame. Things got chippy in the 30th minute as the reigning MLS MVP, Mike Magee, got into a skirmish with Silverbacks left back Jesus Gonzalez after a fight for the ball. Both players seemed to simultaneously attempt to head butt each other and the referee Edvin Jurisevic took little time in showing each player to the showers.
Chicago’s Matt Watson and Atlanta’s Ferrety Sousa were also booked with yellow cards in the half.
The tie was broken early in the second half but the dominant Silverbacks were not the culprit. Set piece defense came back to haunt Atlanta in the 50th minute when Chicago’s Harrison Shipp sent in a cross from outside the 18 and about midway between the touch line and top of the box. Quincy Amarikwa, standing just yards away from the goal mouth, had his volley attempt saved but the rebound came right back to him and he was able to finish to give the Fire a 1-0 lead.
Four minutes later the Silverbacks retaliated to even the score at one. Midfielder Blair Gavin dispossessed the Fire at midfield and found a streaking Sandoval down the middle of the field. When Johnson tried to cut the angle, Sandoval slid a pass to forward Deon McCaulay who was able to finish to tie the game.
“It was a pass to Junior Sandoval. He beat the offside trap going towards goal and he just squared the ball across to me and I tapped in easy,” said McCaulay.
In the 82nd minute, Chicago regained the lead on a penalty when Randolph was whistled for a foul at the top of the box near the middle portion of the field. Jeff Larentowicz went right down the middle with his attempt and a diving Derby Carrillo was fooled and unable to secure the tie.
“He came across the box, Beto went by him, I tried to stand him up, and he chopped me and I tried to do the best to stay on my feet and kick the ball away but I got a little bit of him. Foul, not a foul, I’m always going to say no, but it was a PK,” said Randolph.
Silverbacks midfielder Alex Harrlley, on for Ferrety Sousa in the 69th minute, nearly evened the score again when he cut into the box in the 84th and hammered a golden scoring opportunity over the bar. Harrlley explained that a converging defender caused the errant attempt.
“I was trying to shoot with my left but the second guy came so I took an extra touch, the ball went off the outside of my foot and that’s why it curved away.”
It was a crucial miss that may have changed the outcome of the game. Instead, the Fire found themselves on a counter attack just a minute later that resulted in an Alex Monteiro de Lima goal which ended up being the nail in the coffin for the game and a Silverbacks U.S. Open Cup run that saw them play three MLS sides, hosting two of them.
Despite the loss, the Silverbacks may have played their best brand of soccer so far this season. They controlled the possession by a margin of 6.5%, they won more duels, more tackles, and created more chances. It was the offense that ultimately let them down with missed opportunities and failed finishing attempts.
In addition there is a silver lining to playing this deep into the cup. Players get a chance to test their mettle against the best league in the country, they’re able to gain exposure, and they’re able to build momentum into a Fall season that hopes to be more fruitful than the Spring.
“The energy is high. The guys know they can compete with MLS players and that’s more credit than anyone’s ever given them so they feel that,” said Randolph, “I definitely feel like we’re going to bounce back from this loss and continue to get W’s and make a push for the playoffs.”
With that, the Silverbacks end their cup run and begin the Fall NASL season this Saturday at Tampa Bay. The Silverbacks earned a spot in the league’s pinnacle match, the Soccer Bowl, a year ago by winning the Spring season. They can get back there with a top two finish in the standings this Fall. The first home game of the new season is July 19th against FC Edmonton.
Alec Campbell, Sports Radio 92.9 The Game
Follow Alec on Twitter, @AlecCampbell5