TORONTO – In a year of ups and downs, the Reds are set to take the field for the 47th and final time.
One game remains before Toronto FC can close the door on a season that has not gone to plan.
There will be no Audi MLS Cup playoffs. There will be no title defence. That said, when Atlanta United come to BMO Field on Sunday for Decision Day, there will be no shortage of ambition to earn a result on Fan Appreciation Night.
“Everybody can find motivation,” said Eriq Zavaleta. “The most important for me is that we leave our fans on a positive note – they deserve that. And protect our home field. We haven't done that well enough this year; we have one more chance to do it.”
That Atlanta, chasing the Supporters' Shield, the all-time points record, and looking to head into the post-season in good form, is the opponent only adds to that mix.
The two sides have met three times since the Five Stripes, as Atlanta are occasionally called, joined MLS last season. All three have ended in 2-2 draws, each entertaining and engrossing in their own right.
Josef Martinez, who set a new mark for most goals in a single season with 30, has been held scoreless through four matches, his longest drought in MLS. And Miguel Almiron may or may not be available after an injury suffered at the beginning of the month, but regardless of who Tata Martino trots out, one factor will be at the forefront of Toronto's mind.
“They are a team with a lot of speed, very aggressive in the way they attack,” cautioned Greg Vanney midweek. “It's important we can manage [that], reduce the spaces they play in, make sure we stay together as group; don't get drawn out chasing them around the field. They've managed to score a lot of goals this year; have got good players who can hurt you given the opportunity.”
“Their vulnerabilities would be on the defensive side,” added Vanney. “Those are the ways that we will want to hurt them.”
Said Zavaleta: “Good players; a good coach, who puts those players in successful positions. They can hurt you if you make mistakes, turn balls over or if you're sleeping. That's something we can't do.”
Over the two years, though separated geographically, there has been zero distance between the two sides. As a reminder, it is a fitting end.
"One more game left, against Atlanta,” said Ashtone Morgan. “Our two clubs have become rivals. It's always been a testy and great match up. From there, reassess and take care of business for next season.”
February, when the season began, seems like both just yesterday and a very long time ago.
“No one is happy that we're not playing in the postseason,” stressed Alex Bono. “We're all competitors, we all want to win. Especially coming off a season like we had last year: you want so bad to replicate that feeling, that drive, that emotion. It's difficult to do the full 180 and miss [out]. It's very disappointing.”
“There was a lot of anger for that week after. And then, going into the next game, it turned to, 'We've still got games to play. We're professionals, we need to approach them, play them as [such]',” relayed Bono. “[Preparation] for next season has already started. We've taken these games to play with pride, enjoy the game, have fun doing what we love. It's been a long, draining, frustrating season. I've been trying to take these last few games to find some form, end on a high note.”
One game left. Then the long offseason.... Although, February and the start of the 2019 Concacaf Champions League will be here faster than one may expect.
“We're not a group that gives up. We're going to fight to the end,” said Zavaleta. “You saw that when we came back the first game after we were out. We put together a group of 11 players who have never played together and went for it, went against the hottest team in MLS, [D.C. United], at their home and gave them a run for their money.”
“This group might not look identical next year; we're going to work our hardest to enjoy every last minute we have together and push on to get results,” added Zavaleta. “There is something to be said about trying to continue forward momentum into next year. We still believe, no matter who is on the field, that we have a chance to win every night.”