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Orlando City falls 2-0 to Atlanta United in semifinals of U.S. Open Cup

Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan (1) leaps in to stop a goal attempt by Orlando player Dom Dwyer (left) during the Atlanta United at Orlando City soccer game at Exploria Stadium in Orlando on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando City’s run in the U.S. Open Cup came to an end on Tuesday night as the Lions fell 2-0 to Atlanta United.

Orlando City (8-5-11) wasn’t lacking for options in the first half, building a drive in the first five minutes that set up Dom Dwyer to score by chipping the keeper, only to have it called back for being offside. The team disrupted Atlanta’s (12-3-9) attack by breaking up passes in the midfield, chipping passes past the backline to take advantage of one-on-ones.

But as the first half wore on, Atlanta continued to break down the Orlando City backline, launching a full-frontal assault and taking seven shots in the final 15 minutes of the first half. Even without leading goal-scorer Josef Martínez — the reigning MLS MVP who sat out Tuesday’s match due to a groin injury — Atlanta was far from toothless on the attack.

“I think we’re learning what it means to be a winning team, [and] that means that every time you step on the pitch, you expect to win,” forward Sacha Kljestan said. “Atlanta has that having been through MLS Cup last season and lifting a trophy. We maybe got a little bit of stage fright or nerves tonight when some of our guys played in a big game for the first time.”

The relentless pressure finally broke through in the 37th minute. Goalkeeper Adam Grinwis dove to block an initial shot launched from outside the top of the box by Eric Remedi, but the ball ricocheted toward the corner along the goal line. Julian Gressel ran onto the deflection and crossed it back into the box with his first touch, and Remedi followed to bury his second shot.

The goal only temporarily deflated the booming announced crowd of 18,461 fans, which set a club record for the largest attendance at a U.S. Open Cup match. In the seconds leading up to kickoff, the supporters section unfurled a massive tifo depicting the Bride character from movie “Kill Bill” with the message, “You and I have unfinished business.”

Orlando City managed to pepper the Atlanta backline several more times in response, with both João Moutinho and Will Johnson ripping off shots inches from frame in the final minutes of the half. But Orlando City struggled to find a response to Atlanta’s early one-goal lead and that shooting stupor continued into the second half.

The second half opened up more, allowing both teams to run from one end line to another and forcing the game into a pitched battle of transition play. Still, Orlando City struggled to pin Atlanta in deep, creating flashy possession plays around the box that fizzled out without a shot.

“You look at the effort from the guys, they tried really hard in the second half,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said. “The effort was there, the intensity second half was there, we just needed a little bit more focus, a little more quality to finish the chances, hit the frame, make the keeper save it and take the shot.”

Forward Chris Mueller looked to add a much-needed jolt of energy when he entered in the 58th minute. As he stood to warm up on the sidelines, the stands rumbled with a chant of “We want Mueller.” But he couldn’t offer the spark that the team needed. Although Orlando stitched together several threatening possessions around the box, it didn’t place another shot on frame in the second half until the final seconds of the game.

In the 78th minute, Atlanta drove home a second goal in transition. Remedi chipped a pass over the backline to Franco Escobar, who immediately slotted a pass backward into the box for Emerson Hyndman to push home. The goal stretched the Atlanta lead to 2-0, and the visiting team held onto that margin until the final whistle.

“It just comes down to individual plays,” Kljestan said. “Clearly we didn’t have enough shots on target tonight to make [Atlanta goalkeeper] Brad Guzan forced into saves. Each play is different, but not enough of us finished our plays onto target.”

Atlanta advances to the U.S. Open Cup final, while Orlando concluded its deepest run in the tournament that crowns the top American soccer team.

The loss extended Orlando City’s winless streak against Atlanta United, with the Five Stripes handing the Lions their sixth loss and eighth overall game without a victory. Although the lack of wins against the rival team has been a source of ire throughout the Orlando City fanbase, O’Connor refuses to focus on the teams’ history when looking at Tuesday night’s loss.

“Honestly, I couldn’t care less about the record,” O’Connor said. “I’ve had to listen to all this crap — excuse the language — and I’m not interested in that. It’s pure mentality. I haven’t been involved in other games against Atlanta, as a coach or as a club. I’m not interested in any of it because it has no bearing on the game. We got beaten tonight because we weren’t good enough and I think that’s the fact.”

The Lions will have little time to rest after the loss, with a key game on the road in Toronto scheduled for Saturday. Orlando City is battling to earn the first MLS playoff bid in club history.

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