One down, 33 to go.
Toronto FC hit the road once more this weekend, prepared to get back on the pitch Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a clash with Atlanta United.
These early outings are important. The points on offer are as valuable as any throughout the season, but the lessons each 90 minutes imparts are doubly so.
Having fought into a winning position after trailing in the first half, D.C. United scored two late goals last weekend to overturn the result.
Those examples highlight areas for improvement.
“When we looked at the game, we thought that in the first half we could have moved the ball faster,” said Bob Bradley on Thursday. “We moved the ball, we still had a lot of possession, but at times it wasn't fast enough.”
“We learn from the goals,” he continued. “The first was just a series of reactions where guys were there and weren't able to take care of a play. In the second half many of those things got better. After we went up 2-1 – from 83’ to 89’ – the players managed the game well. It highlights that it doesn't take much to all of a sudden let a game tilt a little bit and give the other team a chance.”
“There were a couple of plays where we should have been smarter, should have managed a situation a little bit better,” Bradley stressed. “We had enough guys in the box at the end; not enough guys that recognized where they needed to be or saw a play coming a little bit faster.”
“When it was 2-2 we were too anxious to hit long balls, so the game got stretched. When the play [that led to the game-winner] developed, by the end we have eight guys in the box, so it's not a situation where guys didn't react and try to go back and deal with the moment, but we just didn't do well on the ball that comes behind our defensive line,” he added. “That situation has to be defended better.”
For the first match of the year, with a number of offseason additions in place, there was a lot of good to build on.
“We showed good character to be able to get back, get it to 2-1 and then obviously we let it slip late,” said Richie Laryea. “There's a few little moments, little things to improve on going into the next game.”
“We've worked on that, our shape defensively and going forward, all good things and relative to what we need to do in Atlanta,” he continued. “We were able to score two goals on the opening day; obviously, we couldn't get a clean sheet or a win, but there are some positive things to move forward with.”
Sean Johnson in goal, Matt Hedges and Sigurd Rosted at centre-back, and Raoul Petretta at left-back, all made their TFC debuts last weekend.
“Some very good starting points,” replied Laryea, asked how the renovated back-line fared. “All four of us weren’t here this time last year, so it's a lot of new faces, plus Sean in the back as well.”
“The new faces look good,” he continued. “You see the quality that Matt has, that Sigurd has, that Raoul has in that game. They're all very good players and Sean helps us massively in goal as well. It's fun to play with them and it’s going to be nice to continue to build chemistry with them.”
Familiarity can be built, but the quality is clearly there.
“I think, like I said the other day to Bob, for me the most important thing is to know each other,” highlighted Petretta. “I have to know how Sigurd next to me, how Lorenzo in front of me, how they think in the game, during the game.”
“This needs time, of course,” he added. “But we will do it.”
There was some good news regarding Lorenzo Insigne, who was forced off in the first half.
“He was on the field today, did a little bit on the side,” said Bradley. “We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. I would say ‘questionable’ for the weekend, but all in all, it doesn't seem like it's going to keep him out long. It's still up in the air as to what that means for Saturday.”
“It's trending in a good way,” he underlined. “And the hope is that he will be back sooner rather than longer.”
Atlanta saw some late drama as well in their season opener with a pair of stoppage-time goals from Thiago Almada, who won the 2022 FIFA World Cup with Argentina in December, to overturn a first-half goal from the San Jose Earthquakes in Georgia last weekend.
Almada equalized in the 93rd minute with a right-footer off the underside of the bar from a tricky corner kick routine and then delivered the game-winner from a free-kick in the 98th minute to earn all three points for Gonzalo Pineda’s side with a 2-1 win in their opener.
“They have some very skillful players,” said Bradley. “Everyone saw what Almada was capable of doing in the second part of the season last year. He starts out [this year] with two great goals. They've got other guys that are talented and good on the ball. And that's a style of play that you see when you watch them over and over.”
Games between Toronto and Atlanta over the years have regularly been enticing affairs. The two split the pair of matches last season, each winning at home. That Quentin Westberg, often at the center of those clashes, is now playing for the other side adds another wrinkle.
“They're obviously a good team, we know that, and away games in this league are always tough wherever you go,” said Laryea. “We'll be fully prepared for them.”
“We as well have a very good team, so whenever we play against them it's a pretty good game,” he added. “They like to play football – we like to play football as well.”