By: Sean Garnett
On an afternoon where all 22 MLS teams faced off on “Decision Day 2017”, the match between Toronto FC (20-5-8) and Atlanta United (15-9-9) turned out to be one of the most exciting of all the match-ups of the day! The 4th place 5-Stripes came into the game with a very real chance of moving up to the 2nd place spot in the East heading into this week’s MLS Playoffs, however with Toronto already having locked up the 1st seed in the East, the task would be daunting for the Red and Black.
The first half started out a bit slower than how the normal Atlanta United home games have gone most of the season, as Toronto played with a very compact midfield and backline which made it tough for Atlanta United to penetrate and create chances early. Brad Guzan would come up huge several times in the first 20 minutes and probably the best save of the day came in the 21st minute when Jozy Altidore’s right-footed blast from the left side of the 18 was parried by Guzan. His left hand got just enough of the ball to deflect it over the crossbar. The record crowd of 71,874 Red and Black fans roared with their approval. For the 2nd time of the season, Atlanta United fans broke the single-game attendance record for an MLS game. The constant noise level of support along with the obvious booing of US Internationals Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore was certainly a sign of the fans disapproval of the USA team failing to make the World Cup for 2018.
In the 29th minute, the referee stopped play and went to the “monitor” to review an earlier play where it was suspected that a Vancouver player had handled the ball in the box. On the play, a beautiful Atlanta United cross found Yamil Asad near the penalty spot, where he tried to head the ball on frame, however, it was blocked by Vancouver defender Drew Moor. After review, it was found that Moor had deflected the ball with his arm and the referee made the correct call by awarding Atlanta United with a penalty kick. Yamil Asad banged home his 7th goal of the season as he struck a low shot to the bottom right corner with his right foot, totally tricking the Vancouver goalkeeper, Alex Bono, as he dove the wrong way.
After another huge save from Guzan against Toronto’s star player, Sebastian Giovinco, the Atlanta United home team would go into the intermission with a 1-0 lead. This was an impressive feat as the 5-Stripe back line and holding mids were having a lot to deal with as Giovinco and Altidore pose a very difficult task for any team to try and defend. But the Red and Black did a fantastic job of limiting the duo’s chances, and the few times Vancouver was able to break through, Brad Guzan was there to clean-up.
The 2nd half started out much like the first, with just a few chances for both teams, mainly from mistakes in the midfield when both teams were trying to possess and create chances in the final 3rd. In the 6oth minute, Vancouver defender, Drew Moor, made up for his first-half mistake by assisting Jozy Altidore on a long ball played over the top. Atlanta United defender, Michael Parkhurst, looked to be in good position as he shielded the ball from Altidore as the ball moved into the box. It appeared that Guzan would gather the loose ball fairly easily, however, Altidore toe-poked the bouncing ball from behind Parkhurst just over the left shoulder of Guzan to knot the score at 1-1 with his 15th goal of the season.
The Red and Black faithful didn’t have much time to sulk, however, the heart-beat of the 5-Stripes, Miguel Almiron, was waiting at mid-field to return to the line-up for the first time in several weeks after rehabbing his injury. The impact felt by Almiron’s return was immediate. His quick runs and deceptive left foot caused problems for Vancouver’s midfield and back-line.
In the 74th minute, Josef Martinez would put Atlanta United back on top with his 19th goal of the season. Almiron (14th assist) and Tito Villalba (11th) would be credited with assists on the play. Almiron played a perfect switched ball to a streaking Villalba down the right wing. Tito then played a hard near-post ball to a charging Martinez who flicked the ball past the helpless Toronto defender and goalkeeper with the inside of his right foot, into the far-post side netting. The goal put Atlanta United up 2-1 with 15 minutes to play.
In the 79th minute, Julian Gressel had a great opportunity to ice the game after some nice combination play with Martinez and Almiron put Gressel in alone versus the Vancouver keeper. However, his shot sailed wide of the goal.
With the door being left open on the missed opportunity, Giovinco scored an unbelievable free kick in the 84th minute to again tie the score. It was his 16th goal of the season. Giovinco looked like he knew exactly what he was doing as he set up the foul in the perfect spot on the field for his strike. Giovinco baited the Red and Black defender into a challenge at the top of the left-side of the box and then quickly turned his body shielding the ball at the same time as the challenge was made. The right-footed strike was amazing as it rocketed over the wall and into the upper-90 near post. Guzan had no chance as the goal will probably be replayed many times in the future…it was that good. Giovinco, the former Italian International, looks as if he would be no problem for most teams. He stands only 5-4 and weighs in at 135 pounds soaking wet, however, he has been one of the best players in MLS since coming to the league after years of play with the Italian club, Juventus.
There would be one more chance for Atlanta United to take the victory in stoppage time, as a flurry of 5-Stripe chances were blocked inside Vancouver’s box. With the near-misses, the game would end in a 2-2 draw, and the standings for the Eastern Conference remained nearly identical throughout the East as Vancouver finished the season is 1st place, and Atlanta United finished in 4th place. The Red and Black will be back in action either Wednesday or Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the first round of the MLS Playoffs as Atlanta United begin their quest for “The Cup”! Come out and join the excitement!