Toronto FC picked up a hard-fought point on the road, drawing 1-1 away to Atlanta United on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Following a scoreless first half Federico Bernardeschi gave TFC the lead in the 52nd minute, collecting a long pass from Michael Bradley and utilizing a decoy run from Richie Laryea to move in-field and place a low shot to the near-post.
But Atlanta equalized eight minutes later when Matheus Rossetto’s shot from the edge of the box took a pair of deflections before settling inside the left-post.
The home side, spurred on by the raucous crowd, looked for a winner in the remaining half-hour, but Toronto held firm to secure their first point of 2023.
“The good part is on a night where the football is not real good, where we struggled to connect passes and play in their end, as a team the mentality was strong to stick together, defend as a unit, and pick up a point,” said Bob Bradley post-match. “To take a point that way is positive.”
“It's early in the year, there's all sorts of football things we could talk about, but they pressed us hard. We didn't find the right spaces, we didn't play quickly enough, we missed too many passes,” he continued. “All that allowed their pressure to just come and come and come and come. We made a little bit of an adjustment at half-time, that helped in some moments, but the big thing for us tonight is just it's a team point that the group can feel good about and then we’ll keep working on the rest.”
Atlanta had the majority of the play on the night, but Toronto allowed very few significant chances.
“It’s a really tough place to play, they're a good opponent,” said Sean Johnson. “Games coming here are going to be a grind.”
“Everybody came in with the right mentality. You can't ask any more of the guys. We got our goal; a bit unfortunate [on Atlanta’s] – deflections happen,” he continued. “An important point and one that I think when you look back, there's not a lot of teams that are going to come here and take a point.”
Johnson, a native of Lilburn, Georgia, was immense for his new club in his hometown, credited with six saves on the night.
“Sean came up big, made a couple of really good saves, was sharp, always communicates well behind the line,” said Bradley. “When we needed him tonight, he was always there.”
The goalkeeper took a moment after the final whistle to greet some special guests.
“It's special to come back and play in front of family,” he said. “Most of my family lives here – mom, dad, best friends, everybody's here – so having that support come out to these games, be able to play in front of them, and get to say ‘hello’ to them after and feel that energy is something that’s always going to be special coming into Atlanta.”
TFC took the lead on one of their few forays forward, Bernardeschi scoring his second goal of the year after his penalty kick against D.C. United in the opener.
The finish was well-taken, but it was a group effort to create the opening.
“Fede did really well, but Richie's run was important, the timing of Michael's pass, Fede’s patience, but hard run,” observed Bradley. “At the very end Richie's run on the outside becomes a really important part of that.”
For just their second MLS outing as a unit, Toronto’s back-five – Johnson, Matt Hedges, Sigurd Rosted, Raoul Petretta, and Laryea – largely held firm under Atlanta’s pressure.
“It was a game that called for a lot of guys to step up and be voices on the pitch. They did a great job of that tonight,” said the goalkeeper. “Really, really important for Matt and Sigurd in front of me – massive – to keep guys organized, keep guys locked in. It wasn't easy down the stretch.”
“I see big improvements as a group and we're going to continue to do that,” Johnson highlighted. “It’s something that we’ll continue to build as a group and we could definitely say we've taken steps forward this match.”
Staying locked in and focused for 90 minutes is no easy feat.
“On a night where it's not sharp and where it's easy to get frustrated, it's an important challenge for us to make sure that everyone keeps going on those nights and sticks together,” underlined Bradley. “We have to defend a little bit more, defend deeper a little bit more, then that's what you end up doing.”
“If you defend that deep then finding passes to play out is difficult, we didn't do that well enough. We did have some good moments and counters, including the play that led to the goal,” he added. “But overall the mentality to deal with the game as it came at us was good.”
Just as the frustration started to mount, Atlanta found the breakthrough when a hopeful cross to the back-post was cycled high and onto the boot of Rossetto. His right-footer took one deflection off Mark-Anthony Kaye and then another off Matt Hedges to settle inside the post.
“They were putting balls in the box, they were crossing balls, they were chipping balls, they had a lot of runners in the box. Their goal was a double ricochet,” listed Bradley. “The defending in terms of not giving away obvious chances was probably pretty good, but if you're that deep and now balls are coming in.”
“We dealt with most of it really well, other than you'll head one, you won't clear it, it comes loose, there's a shot, there's a rebound,” he continued. “That was the stuff that kept adding up on the night.”
“Games early in the year in this league are hard,” said the coach. “Conditions aren't always great, weather's not always great, when you play away from home there's usually a real energy for the home team. It’s not always that the football early in the year is the greatest.”
“We have to work through that, we have to get better, and in it we have to develop a mentality to know how to fight through games,” he added. “At least a little bit of that part happened.”
Two road games done, TFC return to BMO Field on Saturday with the visit of the Columbus Crew.
“We're super excited about the home opener,” said Johnson. “It’s been two games on the road, two tough matches, and now to be in front of our fans at BMO Field is something we're all looking forward to.”
"Carrying a point into the weekend, if we can make it three [at home] and have a four-point swing here we put ourselves in a good position,” he closed. “We’re looking forward to the first home game.”