MARIETTA, Ga. — Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz has 405 regular-season appearances in his 15-year Major League Soccer career. Before Atlanta United’s 3-1 U.S. Open Cup win over the Charleston Battery last Thursday, he had never played in front of an empty stadium — not officially, at least.
“I was joking with someone before the game that it was like an old MLS game,” Larentowicz said Monday at the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground.
A refresher on the saga that was Atlanta and Charleston’s Open Cup fourth-round matchup: The teams were drawn to play last Tuesday night at MUSC Health Field in Charleston, S.C. U.S. Soccer’s match commissioner abandoned the contest due to poor field conditions as a result of heavy rain in the days prior. Soon after the abandonment, Battery president Mike Kelleher said the game would be played a day later at the College of Charleston’s Soccer Stadium at Patriot’s Point. That did not happen due to more torrential rain. The Five Stripes packed up and bussed back to Atlanta. After nearly 24 hours of negotiations and Charleston’s attempts to host at an alternate venue, U.S. Soccer moved the game to Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga., to the Battery’s chagrin.
Atlanta started slow and fell behind on 20 minutes, but Romario Williams scored an equalizer in the 78th minute, and Brandon Vázquez added two goals in extra time.
“You travel, you prepare for a game, you have your normal game day, you warm up — and then they say ‘no,'” Larentowicz said of the mental challenge that was the week. “And then you go to the hotel and then you drive home that night and then you have the next day off because you think the game’s done, and you’re told that the game is tomorrow. So the empty stadium was just one element of all the things that happened last week.
“It was certainly a little strange.”
Manager Frank de Boer described the field in Charleston as “really dangerous.” Larentowicz said that upon seeing the state of the grass surface, he was surprised the game had not been postponed earlier. But once the team concluded warmups as the scheduled kickoff time approached, Atlanta’s mindset shifted to a desire to get through the 90 minutes.
“Before the game, you’re saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,'” Larentowicz explained. “And then once warmup ends and you’ve run through it and you’ve done your passing drills and you realize that it’s just going to be bad — it’s going to be bad for both teams — and you’re warm and you’re there in Charleston — you drove — you say, “Let’s go, let’s play. Let’s just do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad or ugly; let’s just get it done.'”
Atlanta and Charleston played with zero fans in attendance — aside from a few friends and family — because of “the immediate rescheduling of the event with insufficient time to secure staff and security personnel at the venue,” per U.S. Soccer. The lack of atmosphere may have played to the Battery’s advantage. During Atlanta’s long spells of possession in the attacking half, Charleston defenders clearly heard instructional shouts from their goalkeeper. And Atlanta did not receive the surges of support that would have come from singing and chanting fans.
Of course, Charleston lost out on the advantage that would have been playing an Open Cup game in front of its own supporters.
“Let’s be honest, it was supposed to be their home game anyway,” Larentowicz said. “I did the coin flip before the game, and they were considered the away team. So — I don’t know. The whole thing was bizarre. Who was the home team, who was the away team? I don’t know.
“I’ve never played in a game like that.”
Beyond the the effect it had on the game, Larentowicz lamented the state of MUSC Health Stadium because of what the venue means for American soccer. It opened in 1999 and was the first privately funded soccer-specific stadium constructed in the United States. An Atlanta real estate firm purchased the stadium in May and will plant a mixed-use development in its place, forcing the Battery to find a new home.
“It’s unfortunate,” the midfielder said. “That’s kind of like an American jewel in soccer, in a way, that seems to be going away. I’ve always enjoyed going there and I’ve always enjoyed playing in that stadium. … I’ve never seen it any worse than that.”
Having survived the week against Charleston, Atlanta travels to Columbus, Ohio, for its round-of-16 game. The Five Stripes and Crew kick off from Mapfre Stadium Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET.
The game-day forecast calls for a chance of showers with thunderstorms possible.