The taste of Atlanta United’s 2-1 defeat to CF Montreal has lingered in the mouth of the Five Stripes. But with the two-week-long international break coming to a close at long last, Gonzalo Pineda’s side has an opportunity to rewrite its Canadian story. Atlanta kickstarts the final stretch of the season with a visit to Toronto FC, the first of six remaining games before the postseason.
Despite boasting one of the highest payrolls in the league, Toronto finds itself flung far from the playoff line and with nothing left to play for. The misguided appointment of Chris Armas lasted all the way through June before assistant manager Javier Perez was given the reigns. Still, the damage goes much deeper than the man on the sideline. Players like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Alejandro Pozuelo have regressed and new signings haven’t produced what Toronto would have hoped for. Altidore and Pozuelo have combined for a mere three goals and four assists in 23 games, highlighting a lethargic attack. The Canadian side also has the worst defense in the league with 54 goals conceded. The center-back partnership of Omar Gonzalez and Chris Mavinga has been shaky at best and is frequently error-strewn.
There are, however. some signs of life at BMO Field. Toronto is unbeaten since a September 14th loss to Inter Miami and comes into Saturday’s clash on the back of two straight wins. The turnaround in form hasn’t been enough to return TFC to playoff contention (it’s 15 points below the red line) but Toronto has done enough to avoid the ignominy of a Wooden Spoon and has a Canadian Championship semifinal to look forward to. Yeferson Soteldo (3 goals, 6 assists) and Jacob Shaffelburg (3g, 3a) have been the catalysts for Toronto’s recent results. The former is finally starting to show he’s worth the DP contract Toronto handed him when he arrived from Brazilian club Santos in April. Shaffelburg, a 21 year old Canadian, has taken advantage of a run in the starting XI and cemented his spot with 3 goals and assists each. The duo offers almost all of Toronto’s bite in the final third but has the trickery and pace to cause Atlanta problems.
Though an away fixture with 13th placed Toronto may not seem that important, the nature of the Eastern Conference makes every point matter. Just three points separate Atlanta in eight from Orlando in fourth and with six games left, anything is possible for the clump of teams in the East. And ironically, if the Five Stripes have any hope of a home playoff game, winning on the road is going to be what matters. Pineda has lost both away games so far in an unpleasant fashion and it’s up to him to find a successful formula when Atlanta is outside the comfortable confines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Toronto FC 1-3 Atlanta United
Soteldo will snag a goal for the hosts but Toronto’s leaky backline will be an ideal target for BAM. Goals from Ezequiel Barco and Luiz Araujo will send the three points back to Atlanta after a scrappy but entertaining evening in Canada.