Ethan Zubak photo by Mike Meredith/Club and Country
Well. That was some game. Had Nashville SC not completed the comeback, the storyline may well have been about a penalty not given and a goal incorrectly ruled out for offsides. Instead, the Boys in Gold shifted the narrative. The tale of their 3-2 triumph in extra time will be about a team knocking off rival Atlanta United in the face of long odds – and advancing to the Round of 16 in the US Open Cup.
NSC started strong, but a goal against the run of play put Atlanta ahead. A 13th-minute throughball was misjudged by Nashville SC keeper Joe Willis, giving Atlanta fullback Andrew Gutman the opportunity to run onto it. His cross found Thiago Almada cutting to the near post, and the Argentine Designated Player slotted past Willis.
From there, a rotated Nashville lineup – winger Randall Leal sat with injury (replaced by Luke Haakenson), while head coach Gary Smith shuffled his central midfielders and inserted Aké Loba at striker to give rest to CJ Sapong – had a hard time re-finding its feet. Another of Atlanta’s high-dollar South Americans would make them pay. A typically-harmless ball to the edge of the six-yard box received a deft touch from Brazilian DP Luiz Araújo, and he set himself up to finish left-footed past Willis.
A penalty shout to close the first half – Haakenson was potentially undercut as has tried to turn onto his right foot in a one-v-one situation – went uncalled. NSC went into the half with its back against the wall, and not a ton of obvious answers.
Nashville would begin its recovery early in the second frame. A Loba run into the box saw him cut down from behind, and Nashville’s own Designate Player connection saw Hany Mukhtar convert. After Mukhtar ceded penalty kick duties to Leal after struggles from the spot, he was able to step up in Leal’s absence and begin to rebuild his confidence in hammering to the bottom-right corner past Atlanta keeper Bobby Shuttleworth.
From there, and already-questionable officiating performance (with each side feeling rightfully aggrieved on a couple occasions, and not-so-rightfully aggrieved on a couple others apiece) turned into the would-be narrative of the contest.
A Nashville SC free kick from just outside the penalty area found the head of Walker Zimmerman, and GEODIS Park’s meager midweek cup crowd of 12,375 went wild. A delayed offside flag would take that goal off the board, however. The live view and multiple replays showed, however, that not only was Zimmerman multiple yards onside at the time of Mukhtar’s service, so too were all of his teammates*. It was a major mistake, and it appeared to be one that would cost Nashville SC its US Open Cup dreams.
Enter CJ Sapong. The former US International made magic as a substitute, leveling the score at two goals apiece in second-half stoppage time. With the Boys in Gold throwing numbers forward, a shot from Brian Anunga was blocked, but Sapong was able to get a head to it after a deflection and put it into the back of the next.
It was another substitute who would find the winner in extra time. Nashville’s balls over Atlanta’s backline consistently found space, and all Nashville was missing was the finish. Ethan Zubak finally managed to change that, rounding Shuttleworth in space. Even though he lost his balance in the process, Zubak was able to settle on the ball and take a left-footed strike to the far post and past recovering Atlanta defenders to give Nashville a 3-2 lead.
NSC had similar chances thereafter – and with Atlanta pushing forward, only missed connections prevented Zubak and fellow substitute Handwalla Bwana from extending the lead. A late surge from Atlanta – including a last-minute header from Dom Dwyer – was unable to find the equalizer.
Survive and advance is the name of the game in cup play, and Nashville is the team that gets to do just that. The Boys in Gold will learn their Round of 16 opponent in a draw conducted tomorrow that will stream live on US Soccer’s Youtube channel.
* It doesn’t excuse a fundamental and obvious error, but the official’s mistake was pretty clear in hindsight: he thought Eric Miller was obstructing opponents as he began the set-piece in an offside position (by design. The only issue is that he was multiple yards onside by the time Mukhtar’s pass was played, and this was either a fundamental breakdown in the officials’ understanding of passive offsides, or simply not paying adequate attention as the play unfolded before them. Either way, a crew led by a referee with one of the worst reputations in North American Soccer was simply not up to an acceptable standard.
- 13′ ATL GOAL – 8 Thiago Almada (first-time), assisted by 15 Andrew Gutman (left-footed cross) after through-ball from 10 Marcelino Moreno
- 29′ ATL GOAL – 19 Luiz Araújo (left footed, after juggle), assisted by 10 Marcelino Moreno
- 45’+3 Half time
- 46′ ATL Yellow card – 14 Franco Ibarra (foul)
- 48′ ATL Yellow card – 8 Alan Franco (foul inside penalty area)
- 50′ NSH GOAL – 10 Hany Mukhtar (right-footed penalty to right corner), penalty earned by 9 Aké Loba
- 58′ ATL Substitution – On 11 Brooks Lennon, off 15 Andrew Gutman (injury)
- 69′ NSH Substitutions –
- On 17 CJ Sapong, off 9 Aké Loba
- On 15 Eric Miller, off 5 Jack Maher
- 69′ ATL Substitutions –
- On 32 George Campbell, off 14 Franco Ibarra
- On 20 Emerson Hyndman, off 10 Marcelino Moreno
- 77′ NSH Substitutions –
- On 11 Ethan Zubak, off 26 Luke Haakenson
- On 7 Handwalla, off 19 Alex Muyl
- 81′ ATL Substitutions
- On 14 Dom Dwyer, off 29 Ronaldo Cisneros
- On 5 Santiago Sosa, off 8 Thiago Almada
- 86′ ATL Yellow card – 14 Dom Dwyer (foul)
- 88′ NSH Substitution – On 6 Dax McCarty, off 54 Sean Davis
- 88′ NSH Yellow card – 27 Brian Anunga (foul)
- 90’+2 NSH GOAL – 17 CJ Sapong (headed, after deflection), assisted by 27 Brian Anunga (right-footed shotcross)
- 90’+6 Full time
- 93′ NSH GOAL – 11 Ethan Zubak (left-footed, after rounding keeper), assisted by 10 Hany Mukhtar (ball over the top)
- 103′ ATL Substitution – On 13 Amar Sejdić, off 33 Matheus Rossetto
- 105’+2 Half Extra Time
- 113′ NSH Substitution – On 23 Taylor Washington, off 10 Hany Mukhtar (injury/cramps)
- 120’+1 NSH Yellow card – 7 Handwalla (foul)
- 120’+2 – End extra time