Extremely disappointed. That’s the only thing that comes to mind. —RSL midfielder Luke Mulholland
ATLANTA — A year after its quest to win the U.S. Open Cup ended in heartbreaking fashion, Real Salt Lake’s encore appearance in the nationwide knockout competition ended before it really began.
Playing in its first U.S. Open Cup game since losing the 2013 final to heavy underdog D.C. United at Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL was swiftly eliminated from the 2014 competition after losing 2-1 at lower-league Atlanta Saturday night.
“Extremely disappointed," said RSL midfielder Luke Mulholland. "That’s the only thing that comes to mind. You can see it in the locker room: All the guys’ heads are down, disappointed in ourselves, disappointed in the team and feel like we let (RSL coach Jeff Cassar) down, like we let the coaches down and like we let the club down."
Once again, RSL blew a lead from a winning position. Robbie Findley put RSL ahead 1-0 in only the 10th minute, but Salt Lake looked disjointed throughout the rest of the night.
Junior Burgos equalized for Atlanta in the 33rd minute, and Kwadwo Poku’s long-distance drive from the top of the box in second-half stoppage time lifted the Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League over RSL of Major League Soccer.
Poku’s late goal set off wild scenes of celebration inside Silverbacks Park as the team that finished eighth during the NASL's spring season emerged victorious.
"We knew they were a tough team," Burgos told 10soccer.com. "We knew (they) were MLS. We just brought it to them."
In the middle of a three-week break from MLS competition, Cassar opted to play a team composed of some veterans and some reserves. Regular starting defenders Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran assumed their places in the lineup, and Findley, Devon Sandoval, Luis Gil and Mulholland — all key contributors — started in attacking positions.
However, after Findley capitalized on a shocking error by Silverbacks goalkeeper Derby Carrillo to put RSL up 1-0 in the 10th minute, the visitors rarely threatened.
Salt Lake struggled to get into any dangerous positions, and it found itself attempting to repel attack after attack.
That strategy worked for a little while, but Atlanta, coached by former U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda, ultimately got itself back in the game.
"They were pushing numbers forward and putting us under it a little bit and we didn’t do a great job dealing with it," said Wingert. "When we won the ball I thought we really needed to connect the first pass; there was tons of room for us in the midfield, but we weren’t that sharp in doing that and it ended up hurting us.”
Atlanta's Jaime Chavez came very close to scoring on back-to-back opportunities in the 23rd and 24th minutes, and Burgos equalized for the Silverbacks with a long-range blast in the 33rd minute.
From there, Atlanta kept piling on the pressure. RSL backup goalkeeper Jeff Attinella made a number of fine saves, and RSL midfielder John Stertzer cleared a Chavez header off the line in the 73rd minute to keep the match tied at 1-1.
Just when it appeared that Saturday’s contest was headed to extra time, however, Poku settled matters in the second minute of second-half injury time.
RSL defender Aaron Maund gave the ball away, and Poku drilled a low shot into the left corner of the goal to eliminate Salt Lake in its first and only game of the 2014 edition of the U.S. Open Cup.
With MLS taking a break from competition during the World Cup, Real Salt Lake won’t return to competition until June 28 when it plays at lowly Chivas USA.
The club, which has been missing several players who are in Brazil for the World Cup, will hope to turn things around when it finally gets back on the pitch. Since beating Colorado 2-1 on May 17, RSL has gone 0-3-2 in all competitions and has often struggled to look like the team that tied an MLS record for starting the season with a 12-game unbeaten run.
"We can go let this soak in," said Cassar. "Everybody can just sit and stew on our break and realize the opportunity that we just blew. It also gives a chance for some of the players to get back and — let’s be fair — when you’re missing eight starters from this game, it’s not easy. This game was never going to be easy and we made it really hard on ourselves.”