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Youngsters lead Atlanta United to 3-0 U.S. Open Cup win over Charleston Battery

KENNESAW, Ga. — Moments before the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup kicked off, an assistant coach for Atlanta United FC pulled Andrew Carleton aside and gave him a quick word of encouragement.

“Hey, if you get a chance, don’t be afraid to shoot,” the coach told the 17-year-old making the first start of his career with the Five Stripes.

Opportunity came knocking for the Atlanta homegrown product in the 14th minute Wednesday night against United Soccer League side Charleston Battery.

After an Atlanta corner kick, Charleston thought the danger was cleared away, but the ball was tracked down by Julian Gressel, who then played the ball to Carleton. The teenager charged up the center of the pitch with a Battery defender hanging nearby and then, about 22 yards away, Carleton let a rocket of a shot fly off his right foot. The ball deflected off the right hand of Charleston keeper Odisnel Cooper and landed safely in the back of the net.

Carleton’s banger of a shot was the first of three goals scored by Atlanta United players under the age of 24 on Wednesday at Kennesaw State University’s Fifth Third Bank Stadium. The youngsters starred as the Five Stripes defeated the Battery 3-0 and advanced to the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup.

Watch a full replay of the match here.

“I just took a touch inside and let it go. I hit it how I wanted, and it was a pretty good shot. So, I was happy to see it go in,” Carleton said. “… Whenever [Atlanta coach Gerardo Martino] puts me in the game, he can trust me and rely on me, and I will work my socks off and give 100 percent.”

It was Carleton’s fourth appearance with Atlanta United’s first team this season, but the first start for the Five Stripes in his career. He formed a youthful and speedy attack with Ezequiel Barco, 18, Brandon Vazquez, 19, and Romario Williams, 23.

Williams and Barco also found the back of the net.

“Ezequiel and I are pretty similar players. He’s a little bit more aggressive going forward and in one-on-ones. I thought we had a pretty good relationship switching in and out,” Carleton said. “He had a really good game and created a lot of chances for us. He does that game in and game out. He’s awesome to play with.”

Barco got on the board via penalty kick in the 46th minute after Charleston defender Skylar Thomas brought Williams down in the box. The most expensive transfer in MLS history lineup up for the shot and the keeper guessed right on Barco’s attempt, but the young Argentine put enough power behind the ball that it bounced in anyways.

The goal was the fourth of the year for Barco. He’s played in 10 straight Atlanta games since battling a quad injury at the beginning of the season. He led the team in passing accuracy in this game with a mark of 92.9 percent.

Barco added an assist in the win too. In the 65th minute, he found Williams drifting along the left edge of the box. Williams settled the ball, dribbled a bit and then took a shot with his left foot that whizzed past the keeper and landed just inside the far post, giving Atlanta a comfortable 3-0 lead.

“Romario does what Romario does. He had a solid game,” Carleton said. “He’s battling with two or three centerbacks up there the whole game, and to have a goal and win the PK for Ezequiel, he played great tonight.”

Williams spent two seasons on loan with the Battery in 2016 and 2017, scoring 25 goals in his time there. When he scored on Wednesday, he said he felt like celebrating would have been the wrong thing to do.

“I wasn’t going to celebrate against those guys… I’ve created a special relationship with a lot of those guys,” Williams said. “I hold that club and a lot of those guys close to my heart.”

It was Williams’ third goal of the year, as he has scored once for the Five Stripes and once for the club’s USL affiliate, ATL UTD 2. Martino has often used the Jamaican striker as a late offensive substitute this season. He’s played 61 minutes over eight MLS contests.

“It’s good to get a win and advance to the next round and get on the score sheet. I think my performance was solid,” Williams said. “I could’ve been better with my touches on a couple of occasions, but for the most part it was good to get out there and get 90 minutes under my belt.”

Just two players over the age of 30 — defender Sal Zizzo and midfielder Kevin Kratz — played in the match for Tata Martino. The Five Stripes face NYCFC in a league match on the road Saturday, and the coach clearly wanted to rest his veterans, such as MLS goal leader Josef Martínez, goalkeeper Brad Guzan, midfielder Darlington Nagbe, captain Michael Parkhurst and early MVP candidate Miguel Almirón.

The average age of the starting XI for Atlanta on Wednesday was 23.6.

“Last year [in the U.S. Open Cup], we had to have Miguel and Josef play a lot of minutes so that we could win. It was important that we could win the game tonight without those guys and give the younger players a chance to do that for us,” Martino said through a translator. “I think the young players played well, but I think the experienced guys did a good job as well. They were all solid and supported the younger players.”

Leandro González Pírez, 26, was one of the few veterans and regular starters for the Five Stripes to play on Wednesday. The Argentine defender sported the captain’s armband in the absence of Parkhurst.

Atlanta United will find out who its fifth round opponent in the U.S. Open Cup is on Thursday.

“Whoever we play, we’re going to come ready and try to move on to next round,” Carleton said.

Notes

  • An announced 9,742 fans attended the match, making it the highest attended sporting event in the history of Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
  • Martino said that Héctor Villalba “wasn’t ready to go” Wednesday and will be reevaluated in training this week. The forward has missed the last three games due to a hyperextended knee.
  • Atlanta midfielder Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu made his second appearance for the Five Stripes this season, subbing on for Julian Gressel in the 71st minute. The 23-year-old was a 2017 MLS SuperDraft selection out of Harvard.
  • Two Atlanta United players who were on-loan to Charleston — Gordon Wild and Patrick Okonkwo — were not included in the USL club’s 18-man roster for the game.
  • 18-year-old Atlanta homegrown Chris Goslin made the first appearance of his career with the first team, subbing on for Barco in the 86th minute.
  • Kratz had a game-high 86 touches and five tackles.

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