Atlanta United FC was always going to be up against it when they faced the defending Eastern Conference champions Toronto FC at BMO Field. But despite a poor opening 45 minutes and playing the final quarter of the match down a man, they were able to ride a great performance by Hector Villalba to a 2-2 draw in the second match of a four-game away swing. The Five Stripes have been able to grab a pair of points thus far and start the season unbeaten in four of its first five outings.
Atlanta was a little shaky to start with their passing a bit off and their possessions lacking early on. United found themselves fortunate to not go down early as Toronto’s first chance in the 6th minute came after Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was picked off by Sebastian Giovinco, but the ensuing opportunity ended with a save on a Jozy Altidore shot from the right of Kann and a miss by Giovinco on the rebound. They’d get another chance in the 9th minute as a questionable tackle outside the box by Jeff Larentowicz saw him end up with a yellow, but Giovinco’s free kick went just wide.
Despite the slow start, it would be the visitors that struck first. In the 15th minute, Miguel Almiron played a terrific ball through to Tito Villalba, and the Argentinian blasted it past Alex Bono into the left side of the net to make it 1-0 Atlanta. But TFC knotted it up just minutes later: Altidore set Giovinco up with a nifty backheel to create a chance that the Italian didn’t miss.
After that, Atlanta regressed to the way they played to begin the game as lazy passing and poor possession - along with slow-footed defending at times - hurt their chances at getting a good grip on things. For Toronto’s part, they were fishing for a second and nearly got it on a few occasions, notably in the 24th on a great save by Kann on an open Giovinco in the 24th, again in the 36th, and on a clear-cut miss by Altidore in the 43rd. It would have been a moral victory to see United enter the locker room with things on level terms, but it wasn’t to be as Steven Beitashour hit Justin Morrow with a perfect cross that saw the defender finish to put the Reds on top 2-1 in the 44th.
Atlanta needed a spark coming out of the locker room to help them back into the match, and they got it just seconds into the 2nd half: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez nailed a perfect long ball down field to Villalba, who trickled it into the back of the net to level it. He nearly ended up with a hat trick on a rebound off a Almiron shot not even a minute later as United became the aggressor in the early stages of the 2nd.
“We had talked to the players about trying to go at Toronto’s backline with three defenders and Tito was able to get into that space,” Tata Martino would tell reporters in post-match comments provided by the club. “He has that ability to get in between the defenders and he had two good goals and he had another good chance to score as well.”
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez with the dime! Tito with the brace! pic.twitter.com/CmxYXSbT9P— Dirty South Soccer (@DirtySouthSoc) April 9, 2017
This one certainly could have been out of hand if not for a superb effort by Alec Kann. The keeper did give up a pair of goals, but those probably could have been the fault of his defense and poor Atlanta passing more than anything else. Apart from those, he was stellar between the woodwork. It nearly paid off in the 69th as a blistering strike by Almiron that was barely deflected by Bono almost made it 3-2 for Atlanta.
“We were up against the ropes in the 1st half and thankfully I was able to keep us in the game,” Kann told reporters after the match. “That’s a huge point that shows the character of the group and should be huge for us as the season goes on.”
Things got a little controversial, though, around the 75th minute. Yamil Asad’s elbow came up on Toronto’s Eriq Zavaleta, and Zavaleta went down. It appeared that it would be a foul and nothing more for Asad, but after further discussion, Asad was shown a straight red and Atlanta would be forced to play the remainder of the match with ten men. From my view on multiple replays, it was accidental contact by Asad while trying to get past someone in his path. By rule, Atlanta United can call for the Disciplinary Committee to review the red, and I’d be shocked if a) they didn’t do so and b) if they do, if it isn’t reversed.
“I didn’t see it as it happened or catch the replay so I can’t really comment on it but if the referee made that decision then he must have been sure,” Martino would tell the gathered media.
Regardless, Atlanta looked to grab max points despite being a man down, and nearly went in front on a free kick in front of the box by Almiron in the 81st. Toronto missed on a couple of late chances but couldn’t pull out the game winner as the match ended on a draw.
Tata Martino will have a lot to dislike about this effort this evening, but the fact that his club was able to pull together and earn a draw behind a much better second half should temper his disappointment a little. We’ll see how the team responds on the training ground leading up to another away contest at Montreal Impact next Saturday at 1pm at State Saputo.