Toronto FC

Reds face Atlanta United in chilly clash amidst International absences and injury woes


A heavy late March snowfall has Saturday’s match at BMO Field between Toronto FC and Atlanta United shaping up to look a bit different to what might have been. 

The precipitation is supposed to end well before kickoff, but it will still be a chilly evening down by the lake. 

“I don't like it. I'm not used to it,” said TFC midfielder Alonso Coello after training on Friday. “I don't think it's going to snow tomorrow, but it will be very cold.”

“I’m not looking forward to it,” he continued. “But it's soccer, so we’ve just got to focus on our plan, getting out there, and executing.”

It is not just the weather playing havoc. 

A combined seven players will be unavailable for their respective sides on Saturday due to international action. 

It would have been eight but Jonathan Osorio was forced to pull out of Canada’s match against Trinidad and Tobago due to injury. Fellow TFC midfielder Deybi Flores will miss Atlanta with Honduras facing Costa Rica as those four teams battle for the final two spots at this summer’s Copa America. 

“It's an important loss for us,” said Coello of Flores’ absence. “He has a very unique profile in the centre of the field.”

Coello will look to pick up the slack in Flores’ absence: “Be more aware of my position and trying to cover for what we’ll miss in not having him. Bringing that physical side of the game that I know that I can bring and trying to do a little bit of what he does.”

Losing internationals comes with the territory.

“A big blow, but when you sign international players you know that that's part of it,” balanced John Herdman. “It's part of what keeps them motivated and some of the levers you're pulling as a coach to keep them performing at the highest level.”

Atlanta, for their part, will be missing six players, including four key starters in Thiago Almada (Argentina), Giorgos Giakoumakis (Greece), Bartosz Slisz (Poland), and Caleb Wiley (USA Olympic Qualification). 

“As an international coach, it used to drive us nuts,” recalled Herdman of the club-vs-country conflicts while managing Canada. “You'll be getting the phone call inevitably: ‘Can this guy come back early? Can this guy just play one game?’”

“You only see players for two matches in a three-month period, you're trying to build chemistry, give people opportunity,” he explained. “It's a tough one. Atlanta should be coming here with Almada and their top players.”

“That’s what we want to see, what the fans want to see,” Herdman added.

“It's disappointing, but given our walking wounded this week, it's worked out for us.”

An early season injury front has worked its way through the TFC roster. 

Sean Johnson, Raoul Petretta, Nicksoen Gomis, Richie Laryea, and Osorio, though he has responded positively to training this week, are all set to miss Saturday’s action, as is Brandon Servania, still recovering from a knee injury suffered last season.

Injuries happen, but news this week that Laryea’s hamstring would require surgery and have him sidelined for an extended spell cut deep.

“Everyone in the club are gutted,” shared Herdman. “From the excitement of him coming back, getting him out there against Cincy, it felt like it was something that was going to go away.”

“Richie's never really injured, [he’s] superhuman in terms of his ability to recover, so to get that MRI and recognize that it's a lot worse than was originally projected,” he continued. “It's three months now that we’ll be without one of our best players. Everyone was so excited to get him back, but we'll have to wait.”

Between injuries and international duty others will have to step up to fill those voids.

“It's important to be able to adapt quickly,” said Coello of times like these. “And for those players that step into the lineup and get minutes off the bench to be ready and make an impact.”

All that makes it difficult to anticipate just how Saturday’s clash will shape up.

“It's a team in a similar boat to us with players missing,” compared Herdman. “Guys who they would rely on to create the optimal identity for a match.”

“But listening to the coach – I always try to tune into the interviews – he's pretty determined to play the way he wants to play in Toronto, to get on the front foot, to control the game,” he continued. “I think that's good for us. We know this team are going to play.”

“The conditions might impact how direct they are, but they're a team that want to play, they have a clear identity. That makes for a game where it's going to be more open, more spaces available to both teams,” Herdman forecast.

“I expect it to be end-to-end, but more possession-based for both teams.”

In his third full season at the helm, Gonzalo Pineda has the Five Stripes off to a bright start. They followed up an opening day 1-0 loss away to the Columbus Crew with a pair of wins over the New England Revolution (4-1) and Orlando City SC (2-0), both at home. 

The absent Giakoumakis accounts for four of those six goals – tied for the league lead – while Almada scored another, leaving Soba Lobjanidze as the sole remaining goal-scorer available on Saturday. Brooks Lennon leads the side with a pair of assists through three matches.

While there have been some fierce contests between these two over the years, both matches in 2023 ended in draws and traded home wins in 2022.

Between the weather and the absences, with two teams looking to build on strong starts to the year, it should be a fascinating clash.

“They're a team that tries to control the game on the ball,” said Coello. “It's going to be a battle for possession because we want to be dominating the game as well.”

“It's always a little bit more of a challenge, when [teams are missing players], for you to be able to know what kind of game plan they're going to bring, what kind of players they're going to put in,” he cautioned. “The most important thing is that we're focusing on ourselves and trying to dictate what's happening from our point of view.”