Toronto FC lost by the slimmest of margins on Wednesday night, falling 1-0 away to Atlanta United.
Ezequiel Barco was credited with the game’s only goal when his shot from the right-edge of the area took a deflection off a TFC defender that helped it loop into the back of the net.
Playing on short rest, in the middle of the latest triplet of matches in a week, Javier Perez opted to rotate the starting eleven, bringing on the likes of Noble Okello, Jacob Shaffelburg, and Patrick Mullins, keeping Alejandro Pozuelo, Yeferson Soteldo, Ifunanyachi Achara and Mark Delgado in reserve on the bench.
Toronto had their chances to level after settling into the match, but were unable to make that final play.
“We were solid,” said Perez post-match. “I'm happy with the performance of the team, the performance of the players. They came out, they executed the plan, which was just stay compact, work together defensively and then we will have the ball.”
“We knew [Atlanta] had 90 minutes on their legs from the previous game and our team was fresher, so we wanted to take advantage of that. Unfortunately we concede that goal early in the first half, a deflection, and then you go against the score,” he continued. “After that the team had the opportunities and the difference was capitalizing.”
“All that we can do is to put together solid performances,” Perez added. “And the points are going to come.”
Said Quentin Westberg, who made his return in goal following a hand injury: “Ultimately, it came down to one deflection and we lose the game 1-0.”
“The first 20/25 minutes we were focused, but not taking the game to them,” he explained. “But as soon as we were a bit braver on the ball, that we wanted to influence our game, it started to be a more level.”
“They started the game really strong. They were finding good pockets, creating a bit of chaos, but once we took more responsibility of building out of the back and frustrating them defensively, we were able to find the corridors and take the game to them,” Westberg elaborated. “Frustrating overall, but if we are less spectators in the first minutes then we see the real quality and the real TFC game that we can offer.”
Toronto’s Achilles heel this season has been conceding bad goals. Barco’s wasn’t a bad goal per se – Eriq Zavaleta had corralled him well, gotten between the attacker and the goal, forcing him outside.
“This is a difficult one,” analyzed Perez. “The defender gets isolated against the striker. He makes a shot, the defender [looks to] block it and then the deflection ends up at the back of the net. If I have to put that into a category, I would say it’s just an unfortunate action.”
“We can hide behind luck, but if we had started the game like we ended it, maybe that deflection doesn't happen or goes above or wide,” levelled Westberg. “There's a saying in France, ‘It always rains on the poor.’”
“We weren't active enough in the first 20 minutes and gave them the opportunity,” he continued. “When you get that feeling that you're not bringing the game to them, in their stadium, on their turf, it feels like you're overwhelmed a bit by waves.”
“As soon as we were able to stop these and show more diligence on the ball, more patience and more courage, then it was a game,” Westberg stressed. “Unfortunately we were down 1-0 at that moment and we weren't able to come back, but I think it's very promising. Yes, we need to be brave and turn this luck, if you want to call it luck. I trust that the braver we're going to be, the luckier we're going to be.”
With the remaining two-plus months of the schedule as packed as the last month has been, Toronto will need to find opportunities to rest players and see others step up.
With Ralph Priso picking up an injury on the weekend, it fell to Okello and Shaffelburg to be those next men up.
Okello, making his first start since April and only his second appearance in recent weeks, was excellent in the middle of the park.
“I think everybody sees it,” said Perez, asked his thoughts on Okello’s night. “He had an outstanding performance. These are the positives of when you have players injured or players that need some time to rest and you play someone that maybe doesn't enjoy so many minutes during the season and he steps up and has a performance like he had tonight.”
“With Ralph being out of the team, Noble steps up,” he added. “This young man has now earned the respect of the group and my respect going forward.”
And Shaffelburg poked and prodded at the Atlanta defences, while putting in a shift defensively as well.
“I like Jacob, another of the younger players on the team,” said Perez. “He was good. He has tools different from other players on the team – speed and he can run into space and he can cross the ball. He delivered the work that he was asked to do and he provided good crosses, so I'm happy with his performance tonight.”
The game-plan was to utilize such fresh legs early and then bring on Pozuelo, Soteldo, and Achara in the second half.
“Myself and the coaching staff felt that that was the right thing to do,” said Perez. “[The starters] performance was solid and then we brought more firepower up front and we have more opportunities. We just didn't capitalize.”
The three-step manual has been: stabilize defensively, take more control of the game, and convert chances into goals.
Toronto has largely achieved the first two.
“The psychology of a soccer player is tricky,” said Westberg. “Sometimes you enter the game with the best spirit and you want to do well and you don't necessarily do well and when you have less points than everybody else in the league and you feel like things aren't turning your way, you feel unlucky a little bit.”
“It all comes down to being grateful to be on the soccer field and play for this club and then knowing that we have the responsibility to do more: to show more skill and show more control,” he continued. “Javi is totally right. Having more control over the course of a game and really taking more responsibility all over the field will turn things around.”
“It doesn't happen in a second,” Westberg reminded. “It takes time to build or rebuild, but it's all about taking responsibility and knowing the direction we are going towards.”
The flight plan is true, but though much soccer remains to be played the runway gets shorter with every passing match.
“Absolutely,” replied Perez, asked if the playoffs were still a possibility. “We have 42 points in play still remaining and I am convinced that this team has enough firepower and has enough in the tank to make a final push and run for that.”
“We have to focus on performances – we can't just look at the table. It has to be one game after the next,” he continued. “Today, even if it's a step backwards in the table, it's a step forward towards the direction we have together as a team.”
“There’s no easy solutions, there’s no magic potion to get the issues solved. We’ve carried this from the beginning of the season,” Perez added. “We are doing everything within our hands to fix it and we are going in the right direction.”