Sean Johnson was the hero on his return to his home town.
With a typically assured display, the Chicago Fire goalkeeper ensured the four-time US Open Cup winners advanced to a semifinal meeting with Seattle or Portland by keeping an eager Atlanta Silverbacks side at bay with four saves Wednesday night in a 3-1 quarterfinals victory in Atlanta.
Johnson proved to be the difference between the sides during a first half in which the NASL hosts dominated their more illustrious MLS opponents before the visitors eventually used two late goals from Jeff Larentowicz and Alex to escape with a victory.
Head coach Frank Yallop was quick to salute his trusty No. 1, who had several exceptional efforts to deny the Silverbacks, who attacked with purpose, especially in the opening 45 minutes.
"Sean kept us in the game,” Yallop told reporters after the game at Atlanta Silverbacks Park. “He made a great save first half and a great save second half from the breakaway. Sean’s very good, he’s kept us in it, he’s played well all season for us, and tonight was no different. That was a normal performance from him.”
Johnson, who revealed after the game that between 100 and 120 family members and friends were in attendance to watch a rare home outing for the University of Central Florida product, was satisfied with his own performance but more concerned with his side’s continued interest in the Lamar Hunt trophy.
“It was great to be back home in front of my family and friends and especially to get a win and advance in the Open Cup,” Johnson said. “It was fantastic, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.”
Johnson also paid tribute to the hosts, who were neck and neck with the Fire until the closing 10 minutes of a tough encounter.
“They gave us a great game for 90 minutes and hats off to them,” Johnson said. “They put us on the back foot in the first half and we had to dig ourselves out of a hole. We had to regroup at halftime and really light the fire underneath us to come out and win this game. It wasn’t easy at all, they have some really talented players and, again, hats off to them for making the game an enjoyable one.”
Yallop also singled out the vital contributions of substitutes Alex and debutant Matt Fondy, who was taken down for the go-ahead penalty converted by Jeff Larentowicz in the 82nd minute. Midfielder Alex added a third three minutes later to add to Quincy Amarikwa’s 50th-minute opener and put a more favorable look on the scoreline.
“They’re a good side and they play well at home,” Yallop said. “Especially on this surface it wasn’t easy, but I was pleased for both Alex and Matt coming on and getting the penalty kick to win the game for us.
“It was a hard-fought battle, but it’s about winning the game and getting into the next round, so it’s important.”