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Prekrap: Atlanta United at Toronto FC

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Supporters’ Shield and MLS records on the line

MLS: New England Revolution at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

In a possible preview of the Eastern Conference Final,

Wait, no. Hold on.

It turns out all the pundits were right and Toronto would come around in 2018.

That’s no good either...

This is the week that Toronto FC turns their season around.

I just hate it when MLS Analysis isn’t right - 2018, what a year.

Atlanta United will take on one of the most under-performing teams in MLS to close out their 2018 season as they travel to Canada to take on the Toronto Football Club. A win seals Atlanta United as the best team in MLS in 2018 and gives them a Supporters’ Shield title after just two seasons in the league. More than that, it gives Tata Martino a chance to bring home a trophy and cement his legacy as it seems likely he is going to be moving on from the club. It also gives the Five Stripes a chance to win the first ever treble in MLS history in 2019.***

For their part, TFC had a difficult start to the season and never turned it around. It started badly as the best team in MLS history fell to Chivas, who finished in 13th place in the 2017 LigaMX Apertura, in the CONCACAF Champions League Final. Naturally, everyone believed a team capable of losing to Chivas on penalties would turn it around.

Surely the defense would find the same dominance it had in 2017, Sebastian Giovinco would continue to be one of the best forwards in MLS, Jozy Altidore would stay healthy and keep scoring clutch goals throughout the year, Michael Bradley would continue to be underrated in his ability to break up opponents’ attacks and set the tempo in possession, Victor Vazquez would pull the strings from midfield, and Marky Delgado would continue to rise to Roldan like mediocrity - even though they gave a right back the number 9 jersey everything would be fine.

It wouldn’t be.

Instead the defense was ravaged by injuries and Bradley was forced to play center back for part of the year. The position switch resulted in his hallmark defensive go to move (the classic step to the attacker but don’t actually challenge the ball and let him pass, cross, or flick the ball past you) being exposed as a bad way to play center back. Giovinco would have a respectable if unspectacular 12 goal 14 assist season and be called into the Italian National Team. Jozy would have a career year in terms of missed games finally living up to the potential he always had to have to sit out 20 matches a season. Delgado would show that he has what it takes to be the next American to run a lot and be an OK passer but not a real difference maker.

Meanwhile, nothing that manager Greg Vanney did worked and the legendary MLS roster rules claimed yet another victim. A new center back or two would have made a difference. Getting a healthy replacement for Altidore would have helped too. Even a flashy yet wasteful and frustrating winger could have brought a spark to the team. Alas, Vanney was forced to rely on Bradley and Nick Hagglund and all that TFC has to show for 2018 is a loss in the CCL Final and a lot of takes about how they are going to turn it around and make the playoffs. At the very least, beating Atlanta United and keeping them from breaking their overall points record last year and giving the Red Bulls a chance to win the Supporters’ Shield would be a decent consolation prize.

Like maple syrup, Canada’s evil oozes over the United States

Atlanta United is coming off of an... unconvincing win against the Chicago Fire. The team needed a lucky ball to fall to the feet of Franco Escobar and an own goal to beat the fourth worst team in the league on Sunday. Last weekend the attack looked off — Ezequiel Barco and Andrew Carleton failed to have a significant impact — but perhaps more worrisome for fans was the play of Josef Martinez.

Perhaps everything that Alpharetta Dads and xG adherents have said is finally coming true about Josef. He’s just a poacher, he’s getting lucky, his emotive outbursts hurt the team, he’s good but he’s no Stern John, all he does is score penalties, he doesn’t wear his shin guards the right way, he is due for a statistical correction according to my spreadsheet, he spends the entire game offside, sure his movement and reading of the game is spectacular - but he couldn’t score like that in Italy and, I mean, Brian McBride would never act that way.

Microaggressions from the northern suburbs aside, Josef isn’t scoring at the same rate he was a month ago. He is goal-less in his last four games, including the ugly 2-0 loss in New York when the all-time single season goal scorer was held to zero shots against the Red Bulls. Over that stretch he has managed just seven shots, but he has at least been efficient with his tries on goal with five of those going on target. Still, if Atlanta United is going to win on the road in a tough environment, with an injury depleted squad, against a possibly determined opponent, Josef Martinez is going to need to put the ball in the net again.

Will I try to do a tactical analysis this week? Well, sorta. It’s hard to say how Atlanta will approach this match with the injuries to the team. Arguably, how they play may very well depend on who Tata Martino elects to start at left back and if he decides to resort to the 3-5-2ish again.

If the team comes out in a four back formation with Chris McCann in the left back role it probably means Atlanta is going to try to play a possession based game against Toronto. This seems like a bad idea, even as badly as TFC has played this year, their central midfield is good and could press Atlanta back into their own half. This would spell a long day for the Five Stripes and will give Toronto plenty of chances to create scoring opportunities in transition.

If, on the other hand, Tata runs out a 3-5-2 with Greg Garza or George Bello in at wingback it could signal that Atlanta is going to try to hit out at Toronto on the counter. This seems like a more successful strategy given the injuries to the starters this week. Sadly, the team won’t be able to rely on Kenwyne Jones and his tremendous effort at time-wasting last year to help Atlanta United on this trip up north.

All that said, we know how this is going to end: Atlanta United 2-2 Toronto FC.

***Author’s Note: I do not care what the propagandists in the MLS office want anyone to believe, the Voyageurs’ Cup is not a trophy that should qualify a team for a treble. If you only had to beat something called the Ottawa Fury and Vancouver Whitecaps for a trophy it isn’t a real championship. Plus, this is America and I’ll be damned if George Washington didn’t get the French to beat the British in the Revolutionary War for us just to have a team from Canada put the British U in Voyager and try to get one over on the good people of this country and usurp the title of First Ever Treble Winning Team.