On the fifth try, Atlanta United FC finally got the best of Toronto FC, besting the Reds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday night by a score of 2-0.
Hector Villalba scored the opener and eventual game-winner in the 17th minute forcing a ball over the line off a centering pass from Josef Martinez, who pounced on the rebound pushed wide by Alex Bono in making an excellent save on a Pity Martinez free-kick.
Julian Gressel would add the second in the 67th minute, again set up by the 2018 Golden Boot winner, after Martinez and Villalba worked the ball to their teammate on the right and his left-footed finish took a significant deflection to evade the attentions of the goalkeeper.
Playing the second-straight away game in the midst of five matches in 15 days, Greg Vanney made several changes to his lineup: Bono returned in goal, while Eriq Zavaleta, Richie Laryea, Jay Chapman, Liam Fraser, Ashtone Morgan, and Ayo Akinola all made starts.
Toronto had their chances to take the lead through the early going: Chapman sent Akinola in alone, only for Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to recover and make the block after five minutes and good work from Nick DeLeon and Chapman nearly set up an opener three minutes later.
There was no lack of effort.
“I’m not disappointed in the effort because I don’t think it’s a matter of effort. I think our execution wasn’t great,” said Vanney post-match. “In the first half we had as many or more good chances than they did.”
“Good spots around; in front of the goal, not able to finish things,” continued Vanney. “We got a little stretched out defensively, were impatient trying to step out to things, and they were playing between us. It doesn’t make sense on a day like today, against a team like this, to be getting stretched out. That starts with our forwards starting to initiate pressure too soon, which then forces the guys behind them into some sort of action or movement to try to support them. We got too stretched out.”
The gut punch of Villalba's strike was nearly reversed as half-chances continued to come Toronto's way in the first half.
Laryea did well to work past Brek Shea in the 23rd minute, but his pull-back to DeLeon lifted off the turf, making the first-time finish more difficult than it needed to be. Michael Bradley nearly equalized when he pounced on a poor outlet ball from Brad Guzan and attempted to steer it on goal, but a sharp reaction from Darlington Nagbe hurried the effort and saw it go agonizingly wide in the 27th minute.
“[We had] the right mentality initially,” observed Laryea. “But we didn't execute too well in the final third and we get punished for it. We had a good few looks that we could have got some goals on... a lack of quality when we needed it.”
It is often the side that makes the most of their chances that rules the day.
“They’re a good team with good players that they can hurt you, especially if you make mistakes,” reiterated Vanney, echoing his warning prematch. “We made too many today.”
“In the second half, there were too many turnovers in bad ways. Again, [we got] stretched out. We end up sprinting a lot in the wrong direction trying to recover to make plays defensively. It hurts your ability to try and attack with any intensity or speed because you’ve spent so much time running in reverse. That’s just the wrong way. You want to run forward, and you want to keep things in control on the other side. We got split apart in that way too much.”
Early in the second half, Toronto went to their bench, bringing on Jonathan Osorio and Justin Morrow, as well as Terrence Boyd, but even that injection of experience could not stem the tide of Atlanta attacks, as a pair of goals were ruled offside and Gressel added to the home side's lead.
TFC have little time to lick their wounds as the quick turnaround sees them return home to face the Philadelphia Union on Saturday at BMO Field. And next Wednesday, high-flying D.C. United come to town. Both sides are currently tied atop the Eastern Conference.
“We’ve got two home games in front of us,” reminded Vanney. “We knew this was a challenge. We gave some guys a look; some guys did well.”
“Liam [Fraser] did well. It was good to get Ash [Morgan] going – his season really hasn’t gotten started,” continued Vanney. “Richie had another solid right-back performance. There were some positives inside of what was not our best performance as a group. We were also able to rest some guys looking at two home games and what is going to be a busy, difficult stretch.”
Added Laryea: “It felt good. It's nice to get 90 minutes under my belt. It would have been better, obviously, if we had gotten some points.”