TORONTO — On a night when its offence came to life, Toronto FC was let down by two defensive lapses.
Toronto's backline was sliced open twice in a 2-2 tie with Atlanta United on Saturday in a wide-open, entertaining game that saw the expansion visitors survive the last 15 minutes a man down.
Toronto (1-0-4) has yet to be beaten this season but is still looking to put it all together. Expansion side Atlanta (2-1-2) showed its class in extending its unbeaten run to four games with some attractive play from its young strike force before 26,812 at BMO Field.
While Sebastian Giovinco opened his 2017 account with a goal and had multiple chances, Toronto — which had scored just four goals in its previous four games — could have kept the scoreboard ticking over with some sharper finishing.
"We shouldn't have given up those goals," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said in summing up the evening. "Were there more goals there for us? Absolutely."
Toronto had 20 shots, with nine on target. Atlanta had six shots, five of which were on the goal. The post-game stats sheet had Toronto creating 17 chances compared to four for the visitors.
"They went for the game and we should have punished them much more than we did on the day," said a frustrated Vanney, whose jaw should be unclenching in a day or so.
Hector Villalba scored twice for Atlanta, with 23-year-old Paraguayan Miguel Almiron pulling the strings in midfield.
Justin Morrow also scored for Toronto. Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez had two assists as his influence continued to grow on the Toronto attack.
Atlanta has now tied both 2016 MLS Cup finalists. It played Seattle to a 0-0 draw last week in the Pacific Northwest.
"Two good ties on the road against two of the best teams in the league and in the case of tonight we were down a man so in that sense it was a good point," Atlanta coach Gerardo (Tata) Martino said through an interpreter.
The visitors opened the scoring when Almiron unlocked the Toronto defence with a marvellous through ball that left defender Chris Mavinga, who was making his first TFC start, chasing Villalba. The Argentina forward then hammered a shot through Alex Bono for a goal the Toronto 'keeper will likely want back.
TFC had not conceded a goal for 212 minutes.
Toronto responded with two goals but fell victim to another defensive lapse two minutes into the second half when a 60-yard pass from centre back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez found Villalba behind the defence again with Mavinga chasing. Villalba slid the ball between Bono's legs to complete the play.
Vanney had seen enough, replacing Mavinga with Nick Hagglund three minutes later.
"I thought on the two plays, (he was) way too slow to read the action and see what was going on," said Vanney when asked why he removed the French-born Congolese international.
"No matter how fast you are as a human being, if you don't pick up on the plays early enough you're not going to make up the ground. For me as of tonight he wasn't ready for the speed of the action in the transition ... He'll get another shot down the road."
It may take a while, however.
Veteran defender Drew Moor, ever the team man, threw himself on his own sword when asked about Mavinga.
"It's not just Chris Mavinga, it's myself, it's Eriq Zavaleta," he said, referencing the entire back three. "It's not getting enough pressure on the ball. I thought he was very bright at moments. I thought he was good on the ball. But I take just as much blame as he does on both goals."
Atlanta's Yamil Asad was sent off in the 75th minute after referee David Gantar ruled that he used an elbow to floor Zavaleta.
There was some thought that Asad was just trying to get past the Toronto defender but Toronto wasn't buying it and the bump on the back of Zavaleta's head was clear proof of extent of the contact.
Atlanta assistant coach Jorge Theiler was also ejected in the ensuing kerfuffle.
"I watched the replay. He comes high with the elbow and catches me in the back of the head. In my opinion, it's not even close, it's a red card," said Zavaleta, who is not the sort of player to make a mountain out of a mole hill.
Said Vanney: "He elbowed him in the head and he should be sent off. Simple."
Martino said he didn't see the play but added "if the referee made that decision then he must have been sure."
Toronto came into the match as one of three unbeaten teams in the league, along with FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City.
Atlanta arrived not having conceded a goal in 240 minutes.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press