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Atlanta United at Toronto FC: What to Watch For

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Key matchups, who starts at forward, and analytics

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Seattle Sounders FC Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Last week Atlanta showed that it could go to a tough environment and win a valuable point on the road. The team has another tough matchup as they travel to Tornoto and face the club Seattle defeated to win MLS Cup. TFC has struggled to score at times this year, netting four goals in four games, but they were missing Sebastian Giovinco for part of that stretch.

Their defense though picked right back up where it ended last season and has just allowed two goals all year while keeping three clean sheets. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin will miss the game but his job was not exactly secure for the Reds. Alex Bono kept a clean sheet against Vancouver and started despite Irwin being healthy. He also held Sporting Kansas City scoreless after he subbed on when Irwin got injured last week.

The game against Toronto will be turn on how Atlanta can shut down the Reds’ attack and breakthrough their tough defense going forward.

Key Matchup: Atlanta United Center Backs vs. TFC Forwards

Toronto’s forwards are two of the best in MLS. Jozy Altidore is always a dangerous player and Sebastian Giovinco is electric and one of the two or three top players in the league, if not the best.

Defensively Atlanta has been a pleasant surprise to start the season. United hasn’t conceded a goal in two games and has only allowed one goal scored by opposing offenses off of the run of play in five games. The center back pairing of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst were effective in bottling up Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris last week but when Clint Dempsey subbed into the match Seattle looked much more dangerous in attack.

Toronto has had their international players back in training all week and Giovinco played his first game returning from injury against Sporting Kansas City as well. That all adds up to a big test for the Atlanta back line who will need to limit Toronto’s opportunities to get a result in the game.

Who starts up top?

The decision to start Tito Villalba was ... interesting. Atlanta has a lot of versatility on the roster but Villalba is an out and out winger more than a forward who is pushed wide the way that Yamil Asad is. The team really struggled to generate chances against Seattle but still managed to have a chance to win the game when Kenwyne Jones had a shot blocked by Cristian Roldan in the closing seconds of the game.

Julian Gressel might be an interesting choice to start at forward. He is big, strong, scored a bunch of goals last year at Providence, looked dangerous in front of goal against Seattle, and he has the stamina to play significant minutes at striker pressing the ball without getting worn out.

Kenwyne Jones is obviously an option and nearly won the game against the Sounders, but he may not have the pressing ability Tata Martino looks for out of his forwards and so far he has been used only as a late sub. Another option is playing Yamil Asad as a false nine and, maybe I’m reaching here, playing Andrew Carleton at left midfield.

Atlanta’s finishing against the Sounders left a lot to be desired so this decision will be pivotal in determining the result of the match.

The unstoppable stat meets the immovable result

Atlanta has scored 10 goals and allowed two excluding the penalties scored against them. There is no arguing with these results and the team is sitting on seven points off of four games. However, the outcome does not correspond with what the expected goals scored and allowed models show for United. According to American Soccer Analysis the team should have scored just a tick above five goals and allowed right around the same number.

It is early in the season but that is a significant disparity. It shows that the team’s results are outperforming its play and something has got to give. Quite simply, United cannot keep allowing the types of shots that opposing offenses are getting and expect to maintain its defensive record and on offense the team should not expect to convert so many of the shots taken for goals.

Data doesn’t tell the whole story and the defense and goalkeeping from Atlanta has been excellent so far this year, but it should be troubling that United is so far off what the numbers show. Atlanta United has an analytics team led by Lucy Rushton who helped build the roster using data analysis. The coaching staff should be working find ways to generate more dangerous shots and shut down Toronto’s attackers before getting chances at goal.