Back when Rob Valentino first took charge of Atlanta United from Gabriel Heinze, the Five Stripes were at one of its lowest points ever. Winless in months and playing out boring and predictable losses or draws week after week, Heinze’s successor could only go upwards. And to his immense credit, Valentino has done exactly that. In the 35-year-old’s six games in charge, Atlanta has picked up two wins (as many as Heinze did in his entire Atlanta career) and climbed back into playoff contention. Coming into Wednesday night’s meeting with last-place Toronto FC, Atlanta is a mere five points short of the red line and riding its first winning streak of the year thanks to victories over Columbus and LAFC in back-to-back weeks. The Five Stripes are embarking upon a home-heavy stretch of schedule and have the opportunity to make a serious run up the standings.
Atlanta doesn’t have much room for error, however, and needs to take advantage of the coming weeks. A win over LAFC is a good start but Atlanta doesn’t get much time to rest before Toronto FC pays a visit to the Benz Wednesday night.
TFC is one of the few teams below Atlanta in the Eastern Conference, even as it boasts the highest wage bill in MLS. The off-season appointment of Chris Armas went wayward (who could have thought?) and he got his marching orders after a 7-1 mauling at the hands of D.C. United on July 3rd. Interim manager Javier Perez pulled off a shock 3-2 win at New England in his first game in charge but Toronto’s many problems have been proved to run deeper than Armas. The Canadian side is winless in four and won just two of Perez’s eight games in charge. Any hope of a new coach bump has quickly been squashed in Toronto. In fact, TFC has fallen to last place in the East with 15 points (3W-6T-10L) from 19 games.
Such a horrid record is even more surprising considering the TFC roster only improved over the off-season after finishing second last year. Twenty-four-year-old DP attacker Yeferson Soteldo was the headline signing, while Kemar Lawrence and Dom Dwyer are solid depth pieces. The attacking trident of Soteldo, Alejandro Pozuelo, and Jozy Altidore was heavily touted but thanks to a combination of injuries and Altidore’s poor form, TFC’s never gotten off the ground in the final third. Soteldo (2g, 2a) and Pozuelo (1g, 4a) have shown flashes of their brilliance but Toronto’s overall dysfunction has cancelled out any magic from the pair. Toronto’s attack (24 goals scored) is good enough for 8th in the East but its league-worst defense (40 conceded) makes picking up results rather difficult. TFC has kept only one shutout the entire season and conceded two goals or more on twelve occasions. The center-back pair of Omar Gonzalez and Eriq Zavaleta is especially susceptible to random blunders.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 2-1 Toronto FC
A brace from a reinvigorated Josef Martinez will give Atlanta its third straight win, though a late Pozuelo consolation goal will make the Five Stripes sweat.