ATLANTA, Ga. — To silence a record-breaking U.S. Open Cup crowd of an announced 41,012 fans, the Chicago Fire needed just one goal.
Nemanja Nikolić’s point-blank one-timer in the 54th minute was enough to propel the Fire to a 1-0 Round of 16 victory over Atlanta United F.C. Wednesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“The pressure is high here, but I think today, in our case, we did a very good job,” Fire manager Veljko Paunović said. “I’m very proud of the effort. We achieved something that not many teams do here, winning in this beautiful stadium. For our club, the tradition of fighting hard for the Open Cup means a lot.”
After a stale and uneventful first half, the Fire found the back of the net in the 54th minute, with a shot coming off the right foot of Nikolić. The play began on a counterattack after Aleksandar Katai received a lobbed pass on the right wing. He dribbled down the top line of the penalty box before laying a pass off to Bastian Schweinsteiger, who found Luis Solignac jogging towards the left post.
Solignac drew Atlanta keeper Alec Kann toward him, which left Nikolić open in front of the goal. Solignac played a short low cross to Nikolić who drove the shot home.
— Chicago Fire (@ChicagoFire) June 21, 2018
In Major League Soccer play this season, Nikolić has six goals and an assist.
“It was great action from the whole team, from behind and the finishing from Katai, Bastian and of course Luis, who made that final pass,” Nikolić said. “For me, it was kind of like (Solignac) scored. It was an amazing pass from him.”
Starting lineups for MLS sides in the U.S. Open Cup can often be a mixed bag. The Fire started seven players who could be deemed as regular starters — guys who have played in double-digit MLS games this season. Atlanta included just four players who fit that status in its Starting XI: Miguel Almirón, Leandro González Pírez, Kevin Kratz and Héctor “Tito” Villalba.
Atlanta manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino said he was not surprised that Paunović started a more experienced lineup for Chicago. Martino added that, going forward in U.S. Open Cup games, he will continue to give minutes to younger players.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think that’s why we lost the game,” Martino said through a translator.
It was Villalba’s first start for the Five Stripes since May 9, when Atlanta lost 2-0 at home to Sporting Kansas City. The 23-year-old Argentine has battled several injuries this year. A season ago he started in each game for Atlanta, tallying 13 goals and 11 assists. This season he has notched just seven starts in 12 appearances, including the Open Cup match.
Martino said he thought Villalba was the best player on the field Wednesday night.
“I was happy to play 90 minutes… But I’m sad for the result,” Villalba said through a translator. “I thought we played well, but maybe we were missing that final touch on a few of the goal scoring situations. Maybe we needed to press a little bit more to make this feel like our home field advantage more… I think (Chicago) had more will than us at times. They were faster to the ball. They put out an experienced team and I think that showed. They have big, strong, physical players and we had some young guys out there and I think they let that be known.”
Villalba was credited with two created chances by Opta, but had four of his shots blocked. Another was on-target, but clanked off the far post. Villalba was 76.5 percent accurate on his passes.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) June 21, 2018
Atlanta tried to give itself a spark in the 62nd minute when regular starters Ezequiel Barco and Julian Gressel subbed on, but neither created a goal-scoring chance. Promising youngster Andrew Carleton jogged on in the 87th minute and nearly provided an assist, but Villalba could not put away a difficult shot off a lob pass.
In the quarterfinals of the tournament, the Fire will face United Soccer League side Louisville City FC, who topped Nashville SC 2-1.
While Atlanta didn’t come away with a victory, the club did tally another broken attendance record for American soccer. Before Wednesday’s match, the most attended U.S. Open Cup game was the 2011 tournament final in Seattle, which drew 35,615 fans.
Both teams will resume MLS play this weekend as the Fire travel to Seattle and Atlanta hosts the Portland Timbers.