As forecast, Saturday night's encounter between Toronto FC and Atlanta United FC had a familiar feel.
With the final three months of the 2018 MLS regular season now underway, that playoff-type atmosphere and intensity was on display with TFC and Atlanta battling to a 2-2 draw at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Sebastian Giovinco converted a well-worked attacking move in first half stoppage-time, but a controversial penalty kick eight minutes after the restart and a deft flicked header saw Josef Martinez put the hosts ahead in the 67th minute.
Unrelenting, Toronto clawed their way back, picking apart Atlanta in the stoppage-time once more with Tosaint Ricketts getting on the end of some sublime passing from Giovinco and Jonathan Osorio to earn a hard-fought point.
“We'll take a point,” said Greg Vanney post-match. “At the end of the day, the guys worked hard, battled to the end. The four key moments of the game were the goals. [Alex Bono] made some good saves too.”
“Happy and proud of our guys for continuing to battle,” added Vanney. “Everybody wants to hand the mantle over to Atlanta, but we are not ready to give anything up. The script was: it was supposed to be Atlanta’s day, and it wasn’t. We'll take it.”
Toronto is a team that has been tempered in the cauldron of big matches over the past few seasons.
“We came here, despite a lot of things that went against us today, challenges we had to face, we came through and got a tough road result,” said goalkeeper Bono. “Everyone knows that Atlanta is one of the tougher places to play in the league and for us to grind out a 2-2, coming from behind, says a lot about our character; a lot about how far we have come.”
“Not a lot of people would say a couple months ago that we would come out 2-2 after this game,” continued Bono. “I’m proud of the guys, proud of the effort. We put in a real shift today. Building blocks, also things to work on, as there are every game. We move on, we have an important fixture on Wednesday in Vancouver.”
Added Ricketts: “It’s a good result on the road. It’s not easy to come into Atlanta and play. Good crowd, good atmosphere. So, we'll take the point.”
Bono was credited with four saves, but the importance of his performance could not be reflected in mere numbers alone. He was immense: quick off his line, alert, equal to a striker that looks set to smash the single-season goal-scoring record.
In the 38th minute, Martinez was played in alone, but Bono proved his match. He stepped up once more in the 85th when Miguel Almiron burst through the middle of the pitch, getting a firm hand on the low drive to push it wide.
“I was just trying to do my job,” said Bono. “Trying to do everything I could to give our guys a chance to put points on the board for us. The back four, back five, was great today. They really grinded it out. The attackers for Atlanta are obviously some of the faster, more talented guys in the league. The fact that we dealt with them fair-handedly, I was pretty happy with.”
That he was charged with the game-turning penalty kick in a tangle with Martinez was unbecoming of his night. Discussion of the call, to the laymen at least, hinged on whether Bono got his hand to the loose ball as Martinez positioned to pounce on it.
“The other key moment was a PK that shouldn't have been a PK,” said Vanney of the play. “Goals change things.”
Called on the field, video review proved inconclusive and the decision stood.
“When that gets called, the game changes: they're now up and things change,” explained Vanney. “To me, that’s unfortunate, because that’s the whole purpose of [video review] and here we are again having the same discussion another week. It is what it is.”
Bono was adamant he got his hand to the ball.
“I would love to sit down with someone and talk about it, understand what the guys in the booth were looking at, what they saw and why they decided to uphold the call, but that’s not how this works,” lamented Bono. “You move on to the next one. We’ve been on the poor end of a few of these VAR decisions this year. The optimist view is that they start to turn in your favour at some point. Until that happens, we keep grinding.”
Was Saturday night Toronto's chance to make a statement to any who have doubted the defending champions?
“I don’t know. I don’t care about messages,” dismissed Vanney. “We came in and we battled for 90 minutes. We adjusted through the course of the game.”
“We need to be a little more patient with the ball, move the defenders around, trust each other and allow things to open up and set up before we rush into these attacks,” urged Vanney. “Aside from that, the energy, the work, the belief, the commitment on the day was amazing.”
And that it was Ricketts who put in the equalizer, late-hero many a time, only added to that post-season vibe.
“I’ve done this before,” deadpanned Ricketts. “It feels good to get the goal and most importantly get the point for the team.”
Saturday's was a third-straight 2-2 draw between the two clubs; every single match ever played has ended in that scoreline. And this one had a little more bile to it than any of the previous meetings, ending in words and shoving, as well as a red card to Chris Mavinga for his role in it.
Their encounter on the final day of the season, Decision Day, at BMO Field on October 28 should not be missed.
Unbeaten in five through all competitions, focus now turns to Wednesday night with TFC Vancouver-bound for the opening leg of the Canadian Championship final series against Whitecaps FC to see who will lift the Voyageurs Cup in 2018.
“It’s about momentum,” said Vanney. “And now we've got a Canadian Championship game midweek and then another tough opponent coming to our place next week (with the visit of NYC FC on Sunday).”
Added Ricketts: “Every point matters here on out, all the way to the end.”
“The last few matches have been good,” said Ricketts. “We're trending in the right direction.”