By Chris Smith.
Toronto FC left it late as Pablo Piatti struck in the 89th minute to hand them a 1-0 victory over Atlanta United on Sunday night.
Despite largely controlling the game, TFC were limited throughout by a resolute defensive performance from the Five Stripes, who could even have taken the lead when Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres’ header was saved by Quentin Westberg in the 68th minute.
However, to say Stephen Glass’ side ‘deserved’ three points would be a stretch and in the end, a team low on confidence finally gave way in the final minutes as Piatti fired a header beyond Brad Guzan after some excellent work down the right from substitute Richie Laryea.
So, what did we learn from the match?
1. Five Stripes’ Playoff Hopes Take A Hit
From Josef Martinez’s season-ending injury to the dismissal of Frank de Boer, 2020 has not been pretty for Atlanta United. Now, after this latest damaging defeat, they look in genuine danger of missing out on the playoffs for the first time in their history.
Okay, sure, given that 10 teams make the post-season in the Eastern Conference this season, getting there at all could be viewed as a mediocre achievement at best, but you have to be in it to win it and this club has come to expect so much more during its short time in existence.
As it stands, the Five Stripes now sit one point behind the Chicago Fire, who have a game in hand, and two adrift of Nashville, who have played two games less.
But there is a silver lining: Atlanta United face DC United and FC Cincinnati — the bottom two in the East — among their final four regular-season games, they’ll fancy their chances of picking up at least six points. That might just be enough.
2. Rotated TFC Stay In First Gear
With Jozy Altidore and Justin Morrow still sidelined, no Ayo Akinola and Jonathan Osorio being withdrawn due to injury during the first half — Greg Vanney confirming it was merely “tightness” — it was always going to be a struggle for TFC to reach their usual level of fluidity during this match.
— TSN Soccer (@TSNSoccer) October 19, 2020
Add the fact that they’re already confirmed for the post-season and had to suffer the bizarre decision to forego this season’s Supporters’ Shield — which they were heavy favourites to win — and you can understand why they never really got out of first gear.
With Alejandro Pozuelo and Piatti in the line-up, Toronto still controlled large portions of this match — out-shooting Atlanta 11-6 — but an Omar Gonzalez header in the first half aside, they were largely restricted to pot-shots from distance until the end, as Atlanta kept their discipline at the back and asked genuine questions on the break.
Piatti grabbed the late winner, nodding home after some fine work from Laryea, but this was as much down to some tired Atlanta defending as it was TFC proverbially carving their opposition open.
The thing is, we already know just how much more Vanney’s side have to give, making this first-gear 1-0 win all the more terrifying to their playoff rivals.
3. Big Names Returning At The Right Time
As well as a relatively favourable run-in, there is another source of optimism for Atlanta United fans following Sunday’s defeat: Ezequiel Barco’s return and Marcelino Moreno.
The Barco saga has been anything but fun to watch, with fans constantly asking where their Designated Player is only for Atlanta United to offer murky reports about his fitness.
However, the Argentine starlet finally returned to action on Sunday night alongside compatriot and fellow DP Moreno as half-time substitutes. To say they injected excitement into the Five Stripes would be understating it.
From the word go, Barco looked to isolate TFC defenders in one-on-ones and ask questions of their back four, while he created one chance and provided two crosses over the second 45 minutes. Not vintage, but a promising comeback.
Moreno, meanwhile, was a breath of fresh air for an Atlanta midfield which looked totally detached from the defence during the first half. The former Lanus man performed brilliantly in his box-to-box, “free eight” role, driving the ball forward to get the Five Stripes up the pitch and always looking to break TFC lines with his passing.
Throughout the second half, Moreno completed 84.8% of his passes, attempted three dribbles (completing one) and saw one shot blocked. Again, not vintage, but combined, the two Argentines electrified Atlanta.
— Chris Smith (@CJSmith91) October 19, 2020
There was also a promising first-half performance from Mexican winger Jurgen Damm, who caused left-back Tony Gallacher serious problems with his pace and managed to get behind the TFC defence on a number of occasions. Gallacher was replaced by Laryea at half-time in what proved to be an inspired tactical switch from Vanney.
Atlanta United lost and as a result, they’re really up against it now as they seek to make the playoffs. But they were also facing the league’s best team right now on Sunday night and put in a spirited performance. Couple that with the return of some vital players and others starting to show their true form and you can see there is still cause for hope of something among Five Stripes supporters.