Good teams find a way.
Toronto FC did just that on Sunday night with a late 1-0 win over Atlanta United FC at Pratt & Whitney Stadium’s Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut.
Just as it looked that both teams would be forced to settle for the scoreless draw, Richie Laryea got on the ball in the attacking third and made space to fling a cross into the box. It took a slight deflection en route, but Pablo Piatti was able to redirect it on to the far-corner with a glancing, downward header where it skipped past Brad Guzan in the Atlanta goal in the 89th minute.
“It was just sticking with it,” said Greg Vanney post-match. “We had some good looks, especially in the first half, that we weren't able to break through. Q [Westberg] has to make a great save off the [Erick] Torres header. Aside from that I didn't really feel like we were too vulnerable, it was just a matter of figuring out the best way through them.”
“We were trying different things during the course of the game to create that window of opportunity to win it,” he continued. “A lot of different looks, a lot of different shapes to try to unbalance them. In the end, Richie does what he does – gets just enough space to put something across the goal. We didn't have the biggest guys in the box, but the littlest guy managed to get his head on one and redirected beautifully to the back-post. Five games in 16 days, you win them any way you can.”
“And now we regroup,” Vanney added. “We get a couple of days at home. We get a couple days of training and then another big game against Philadelphia. Really proud, again, of the effort. It's been an incredible five-game series by our group, everybody stepping up and contributing in many different ways, so proud of the guys.”
Both teams had decent looks at goal throughout the course of the opening half, but the best came for Atlanta in the 68th minute when Brooks Lennon flung a ball into the TFC box from the right. Torres met it firmly, but Westberg was equal to the challenge, reading it all the way and getting down well to his left to make the save.
Cue the finale. Cue Richie and Piatti.
“He's an incredible attacking right-back,” said Vanney of Laryea. “His ability to unbalance defenders in the one-on-one situation. When we're able to get him isolated, it's so difficult for full-backs or wingers that are having to defend him because he's so good.”
“He's just so quick in his first step,” he continued. “You see a similar version of it in Alphonso Davies. If you have a full-back who can beat people on the dribble, it's like gold. Richie has done that for us to the tune of a number of assists and some goals this year and continues to do it.”
It was his fourth assist of the season.
Listed at 5’4”, Piatti has been a giant addition to the club this season.
“You see it every day, every game,” remarked Vanney. “He works his socks off, will work defensively and offensively, and he puts a shift in every single time.”
“That's a part of what's going on right now: we’ve got a lot of guys willing to work and do whatever they have to do – and he's one of those guys,” continued the coach. “Inside of that he brings some experience in reading the game, reading what situations are happening and how to deal with them, and has some real quality on his left foot, and tonight, with his head.”
“That was more of a soccer tennis goal, he's one of our good soccer tennis players, so it's one of those goals for him tonight,” Vanney added. “He's a wonderful human being and wonderful person, a team player. That's the kind of thing that he brings to this group. His willingness to compete and work is high, and that's exactly what he's doing right now.”
The match also saw the return of captain Michael Bradley, replacing Jonathan Osorio, who left in the 20th minute when a knock he was carrying wouldn’t loosen up.
Bradley stepped back into his familiar role and didn’t skip a beat.
“Experience helps,” began Vanney. “When you've played as much as he has and you've been in the trenches, you know what it's like and you have that muscle memory.”
“The second part is he works incredibly hard every single day to get his body into peak fitness. He's worked really hard through this stretch to keep his fitness level high, but to also do every little thing that he can to be ready when the time came,” he continued. “He probably could have rushed back maybe a game earlier, but he took a little extra time to continue to work and to train and get sessions under his belt. He looks sharp.”
The win continued TFC’s unbeaten streak to nine matches, all but the latest without their captain.
Bradley was asked if he is pleased with what he has seen.
“I am. Very, very much so,” he replied. “The mentality of our group continues to shine through in big ways.”
“We have a group that is tried and tested, and has been through a lot together,” Bradley continued. “The group constantly evolves, there's always new faces, and when you have new guys who come in, you try to put your arms around [them], welcome them and make them feel at home. But at the same time, make sure they understand the standards that have been put in place around here and make sure that every single guy understands what it means to play for this club and to be a part of this group. There's been examples of guys who come here and it's not so easy for them in that regard and then you have others who look around and they see that it's a special club and it's a great group to be a part of.”
“We've got to keep going,” he added. “Nobody's handing out any awards after tonight. We've got to keep going, keep pushing, understand that the biggest games are still to come. And if we can continue to get better, continue to get sharper, and combine all that with our mentality, we're going to be in a good spot.”
With the gruelling five-game stretch completed, TFC exit with 13 of 15 possible points to maintain their spot at the top of the league.
They can now enjoy a well-deserved rest and a few days back home before returning to the pitch on Saturday with a trip to Pennsylvania to face the Philadelphia Union.
“It’s going to feel great to get on the plane,” smiled Vanney. “I'm looking forward to getting out of here and all the guys who are going home are looking forward to a couple days off and, most importantly, seeing their families and just escaping for whatever little time we have. Even if it's quarantine, it doesn't matter, just to see family and to hug our kids and wives and everything else is going to be great.”
The coach is not surprised that his side has managed to find a way, even in these most difficult of circumstances.
“I have a ton of confidence in this group,” he explained. “There's so much resiliency, you feel it every single day. They're enjoying playing, taking this idea of winning the league and having fun. They believe in themselves, they believe in each other. They're putting in the work, which is the most important thing.”
“The mentality of the group is strong,” Vanney assessed. “And once the culture like that is inside the group, it takes a lot to disrupt. Whoever’s turn it is, guys are stepping up, and we’re manufacturing wins on tough days, which you have to do sometimes.”
Even something like the late announcement by the Supporters’ Shield Foundation that the Shield would not be handed out this season will not stop them.
“It's disappointing,” admitted Vanney. “Having said that, if we win this thing we're going to lift a trophy.”
“I told the guys we would go get a manhole cover and spray paint it silver and gold and we're going to lift that damn thing if we have to lift it all of us together, but we're going to lift something at the end of this if we win it and we're going to celebrate,” he added. “They can't take that away from us, so we're going to fight for that and you saw that tonight.”
This year has been unlike any other, that is true. But really?
“It seems ridiculous. There's no sugarcoating that,” said Bradley after weighing his words carefully. “That three weeks from the end of the season, all of a sudden, you can just decide that one of the three trophies that teams are fighting for throughout a season is no longer in play.”
“But we're not going to let anything throw us off, we're not going to let anything faze us,” he stressed. “We're going to continue to play and compete and enjoy that part every single weekend.”
The match against Philadelphia on Saturday, the team currently in second in the East, begins another flurry. It is followed by the visits of NYCFC on Wednesday and Inter Miami CF on Sunday to The Rent.
The season then closes on November 8 with a trip to face the New York Red Bulls.
“We've got four more games that we've got to focus on, starting with Philly which is a big one because they're in the group that's right up there with us,” said Vanney. “One game at a time, four left, keep taking points, as many as we can each game.”
“This one has been a grind from the beginning to the end and we've got to finish the grind,” he emphasized. “That's what we keep talking about as a group. And then we reset and we get ourselves ready for the playoffs. When we get done with these four games we still have another mission after it, but right now it's one game at a time, four left, and see where we're at.”