Ivey’s Three Thoughts: A comeback thriller over Atlanta United

Nashville SC survived and advanced. Down two goals at the break, Nashville battled back to force its U.S. Open Cup Round of 32 match against Atlanta United into extra time, where Ethan Zubak bagged the winning goal to see Nashville off to the next round. Here are my three thoughts following the match.

Gary Smith’s statement of intent 

If there was any question as to the importance placed on the U.S. Open Cup by Gary Smith and Nashville SC, it was immediately answered last night. 

Smith’s lineup featured just three changes from the starting XI against the Philadelphia Union. One of those changes was necessitated by the injury to Randall Leal. 

For those that enjoy the U.S. Open Cup competition, it was a welcome sight to see both teams field near full-strength squads. 

It was the pressing question coming into the match. Nashville plays five games in just 13 days. A certain amount of rotation will be necessary to keep players fit for this mid-May stretch. Other MLS managers, in a similar situation, may have punted on the Open Cup and fielded a heavily rotated lineup. Not Gary Smith. 

Smith’s lineup choice rang out as an immediate statement of intent. Nashville SC wants to win this competition. 

“I felt like this occasion deserved a strong side and a side with continuity. If you look around the world anywhere, when teams play against each other in whatever competition, if they’re playing against a local rival, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll put out a good side, and the fans will expect they do well.”

Gary Smith, postgame

In a way, it should not surprise. The U.S. Open Cup provides the quickest path to silverware and qualification to the Concacaf Champions League. Wins are wonderful, but trophies are permanent – as Atlanta United supporters tried in vain to remind everyone last night. Nashville will undoubtedly love the chance to capture its first trophy in only its third year in MLS. 

There are other long-term benefits to taking the U.S. Open Cup seriously. A deep Open Cup run is an excellent opportunity to educate newer fans on what precisely this mid-season tournament is and to bring people in to experience GEODIS Park for the first time. It is a unique chance to build the fanbase separate from the daily grind of the MLS regular season.

The Coyotes come out after dark

The sun officially set at 7:43 P.M. in Nashville on Wednesday night. Nashville SC waited until the second half, when darkness arrived, to flip the switch and reverse its fortunes. Coyotes, after all, are nocturnal creatures. 

It was a tale of two halves for the Coyotes. After a strong opening few minutes for Nashville, Atlanta United quickly wrestled control of the match.

On the first goal, it was a triple helping of errors by Nashville. Andrew Gutman spun Alex Muyl around like a top. It is the latest in a series of defensive positioning errors from Muyl in the final third that remains my last bit of concern as to the ongoing viability of Muyl as a first-choice wingback. Next, Jack Maher trots back failing to provide any assistance to Walker Zimmerman in dealing with the runs of Thiago Alamada or Ronaldo Cisneros. Finally, Zimmerman is beaten to the ball as Almada made a darting run to the near post.

The second Atlanta goal came from a beautiful bit of skill from Luiz Araújo. His deft touch over Zimmerman’s leg gave Araújo the space to fire off Atlanta’s second goal. 

Atlanta’s DPs lived up to their billing in the first half, and Nashville’s did not. It is as simple as that. 

The story completely changed after the half. From the first minute after the break, the Coyotes came out hunting for a goal. 

In the 48th minute, Aké Loba flashed his elite speed to race past Alan Franco and draw a penalty kick for Nashville SC. As poorly as Loba played in the first half, this run helped spark Nashville’s comeback by providing an immediate sense of belief in the second half that the match was not yet lost.

A huge amount of credit goes out to Hany Mukhtar as well. His struggles from the penalty spot are well documented. When Nashville desperately needed a goal, he stepped up to the penalty spot and delivered. Two of Nashville’s DPs immediately combined to turn the Coyotes’ hopes around.

After the Mukhtar goal, Nashville kept hunting for a second dominating the proceedings the rest of the way. The Coyotes generated numerous chances before eventually equalizing on a stoppage-time header from C.J. Sapong. 

The Sapong goal was followed by a calmly taken shot from Ethan Zubak to give Nashville the lead in extra time.

I’ll be the first to admit that I thought Zubak had missed his window to shoot. Credit to him for not panicking, staying patient, and striking the ball cleanly into the far post.Watching the goal, it is easy to forget that Zubak has logged just two minutes of action this year. Despite the lack of playing time, he found that bit of calmness in the box that he needed to capitalize on the opportunity and send Nashville supporters into delirium.

Missed calls robbed Nashville 

I never criticize individual referees. Full stop.

In my lifetime, I have refereed soccer, baseball, basketball, football, and everything in between. It is not an easy job at any level. We demand perfection from human referees. It is an unrealistic standard as we all make mistakes no matter our profession. 

While I will not criticize referees, I will readily admit when a call is wrong. Last night, missed calls robbed Nashville SC, twice. 

When the Extratime crew is volunteering an emergency episode of Instant Replay, you know it is bad. 

The first missed call came on the non-foul call in the penalty box. Franco Ibarra bowled over Hany Mukhtar in the box. It was a clear penalty, strikingly similar to the penalty given to Nashville minutes earlier, and would likely have been overturned if VAR had been in place. 

If I have one major gripe with officiating as a whole, it is the tendency to change the way the game is called late in games or after already having made a consequential call. Whether conscious or unconscious, soccer officials avoid awarding a second penalty in a match, even if the situation calls for it.

I imagine that it comes from the inherent fear in all referees to not interject themselves into the match by giving one team two golden opportunities from the spot. But by failing to award a clear penalty, a referee inserts themselves into the central conversation of the match regardless. It is an absolutely tough job, but you make it tougher on yourself by trying to enact fairness over the entirety of the match rather than referee the moment.

The second missed call came on a set-piece goal called back for offsides. Even the morning after, I still struggle to see how the would-be Walker Zimmerman goal was flagged offside. Offside decisions can be extremely tough. A referee must make an accurate call on positioning down to a millimeter at the exact moment the ball is struck. Given the difficulty, we should expect missed offsides calls. However, this call was not even particularly close.

Despite the incorrect calls, Nashville responded and found its goals despite the adversity. 

The match was a testament to Gary Smith and the team. The players showed real belief when it would have been quite easy to pack things in after going into the halftime locker room down two goals. Instead, they battled back and delivered one of the most memorable performances in club history.

Bonus thought

Kudos go out to Nashville supporters as well. The atmosphere in GEODIS Park appeared absolutely electric. In a cup competition where crowds at MLS venues are typically sparse and uninspiring, the crowd of over 13,000 supporters came out in full voice. It was that added bit of lift that carried the Boys in Gold to give every ounce of effort they had to see out the win in extra time. 

Players notice this level of support. It makes a difference. Everyone has a role to play in protecting The Castle, Nashville’s supporters held up their end last night.

Nashville SC await the announcement of its Round of 16 opponent. The draw will take place tonight on Futbol Americas with Sebastian Salazar and Herculez Gomez on ESPN+ at 8:30 p.m. ET/7:30 CT.

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