The busy run continues for Toronto FC on Wednesday night, set to face off against Atlanta United for the second of five matches in a span of 15 days.
Having taken the full three points on Saturday against Orlando City SC with a hard-fought 2-0 win, the side will be aiming to keep rolling ahead of another Eastern Conference clash against the Philadelphia Union at BMO Field on Saturday.
They will do so once more without the services of two key pieces, as both Jozy Altidore and Drew Moor remain in Toronto, training ahead of a possible return to the side.
Greg Vanney is hoping it will be sooner rather than later: “Focusing on the weekend for both of those guys to be available and be part of the group.”
For every team in the league, these early goings will contain a certain amount of ups and downs, but as this hectic period leads into the Gold Cup break and then the summer grind, now is a good chance to pick up some points and get into a rhythm.
Toronto has seen just such inconsistencies and will be aiming to get into the next gear over the coming matches. Their opponent, however, will be looking to do the same.
The lifting of the 2018 MLS Cup was the closing of a chapter in the young history of Atlanta United. It marked the departures of Tata Martino and Miguel Almiron, two of the key figures in the first two seasons of the club's existence.
Of course 2018 MLS Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez is still there – he has four goals in eight appearances already this season, amongst the many familiar faces, but come the new season, now under the tenure of Frank De Boer and restocked with Argentine midfielder Pity Martinez, the reigning South American Player of the Year (Rey del Futbol de America) and Copa Libertadores champion, Atlanta experienced a dip that will feel familiar to TFC fans who saw the side struggle to repeat the glory that was the 2017 season the following year.
Bounced from the Concacaf Champions League by CF Monterrey in the quarterfinals, Atlanta would go winless through their first four league matches before finding a win against the New England Revolution midway through April. A loss against FC Dallas would follow, but they have since won their last two matches: at home against the Colorado Rapids and, most recently, away to Sporting KC by a 3-0 scoreline.
“They're finding their identity with this coach a little more,” said Vanney. “Going to Kansas City, a team that seems to be going through a little of what we went through last year, making some big mistakes, Atlanta capitalized on them with the quality that they have. Some things are falling in their favour.”
Sporting KC, who went the farthest of the MLS sides in the Champions League, is suffering the consequences, with an injury list a mile long and a run of five winless matches.
Atlanta under De Boer, on the other hand, seem to be turning a corner, something they will be looking to continue on Wednesday night with a mouthwatering clash against Toronto.
“A part of that is finding their rhythm and their form with the new ideas that he is bringing,” explained Vanney. “Something that has never changed is that they have good players, guys who can hurt you if given the chance. We've got to make sure that we take care of ball first and foremost; very much aware of where [Josef] Martinez is at and the guys who are very good at creating opportunities for him and themselves.”
Vanney has seen a subtle difference in how the team approaches matches under their new boss.
“They've spent more time concentrating on their set-actions and their system in terms of organized defending; spending more time working on their possession game,” detailed Vanney. “With Tata, they were a team that was very good in the transition: they would try to open you up, stretch you out and play very vertical. Not in a long-ball way, but in a direct passing way. They would play through your lines with speed, get a guy like Almiron on the ball – he could take the game to a whole other level speed wise.”
“They seem to be slowing the tempo down a little bit more, trying to keep possession more, trying to get connected defensively more,” continued Vanney. “A slightly different vision, but they're still most dangerous whenever they're able to get in transition and get moving forward fast. That's when guys like [Josef] Martinez is at his best, running hard in the box. [Ezequiel] Barco has shown the capacity to pick up the ball in transition and drive forward.”
Atlanta will be without the teenage starlet Barco on Wednesday as he is on international duty with the Argentine U-20 squad preparing for this summer's World Cup – he has four goals and an assist this year after an underwhelming one in 2018.
“They're most dangerous in the image of what they have been,” added Vanney. “But they're a little more under control, better collective defending that they were – or they're getting there.”
In seeking to replace Almiron, who was transferred to English side Newcastle United in the winter, Atlanta opted for Pity Martinez, though he has struggled to fill those boots, yet to score a goal or register an assist through seven league appearances.
“He isn't Almiron, doesn't play the game like Almiron, though he plays in a similar position,” said Vanney of the MLS newcomer. “The team was set up under Tata in a way that took advantage of Almiron's speed and the space that can open up. That's not really what Martinez does.”
“He's more of a manipulator of the game, finding pockets and playing in [them]; he doesn't accelerate the game like Almiron,” continued Vanney. “People are expecting to see the replacement of Almiron, but he's a different player. That's happening at the same time that the team is going through an identity shift; all those pieces are trying to figure out the best way to fit together.”
“He's a quality player,” cautioned Vanney. “A very good striker of the ball, a shooter from distance. He's a guy we've got to be aware of.”
Wednesday will be the fifth meeting between the two sides all-time.
Toronto won the last one 4-1 on Decision Day last season, upsetting Atlanta's hopes of winning the Supporters' Shield, though it proved a valuable lesson as they entered the MLS Cup Playoffs. The previous three meetings had all ended 2-2 and included some rather memorable and feisty ones.
With both sides at key points in their re-ascendancy to the upper echelon of MLS clubs, Vanney expects it to be more of the same, albeit, perhaps, with a touch less of the blood-and-thunder that has marked past encounters.
“With the way they play the game now, a little more possession-oriented, they get everybody together defensively, which slows the game down a little bit,” forecast Vanney. “We'll do our best to not let it get opened up and end-to-end, use what we think are going to be our strengths in this game against what we think are their strengths as a team and find our opportunities.”
“It has the potential to grow into something really interesting over time,” added Vanney. “It'll be a pretty tactical affair early on, especially if we can keep things connected and playing at the speed we want.”