Toronto FC and Atlanta United have had difficult weeks ahead of their MLS clash Saturday, with off-field concerns overshadowing their push for the playoffs.
Italian star Lorenzo Insigne missed TFC practice Thursday dealing with "a personal family situation." The club did not elaborate but the matter was serious enough that fellow Italian Domenico Criscito skipped training "to support Lorenzo and his family."
Toronto was scheduled to travel Friday to Atlanta with Insigne's status up in the air.
Insigne, who is married with two children, had a scare in early August as Toronto was preparing to return home from a 4-3 win in Nashville. News of a "family health situation" after the team boarded its charter prompted TFC to delay the flight so the Italian could get more information. The former Napoli captain subsequently pulled out of the MLS all-star skills competition in Minneapolis but returned to training later that week.
Atlanta, meanwhile, handed star striker Josef Martinez a one-game ban this week that will keep him out of the Toronto game for a reported altercation with coach Gonzalo Pineda in the locker-room after last weekend's 2-1 loss in Portland.
"He's welcome back Monday (Sept. 12)," the Mexican coach told reporters Thursday in the wake of the suspension news. "It's understanding that he's valuable to us all here. He's a great player and I want him back. It's a question of what's more important — the (team) culture or scoring goals. And for me., it's the culture. I pick culture — over everything."
Martinez, a former MLS MVP, leads Atlanta with eight goals this season and is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer with 110 in all competitions. The 29-year-old Venezuelan has come off the bench in five of the last six games, scoring in two of the past three matches as a substitute.
The suspension comes just days after Atlanta defender Miles Robinson, a U.S. international who has been out since May with an Achilles injury, was arrested last Saturday and charged with misdemeanour theft after an alleged incident at a bar.
"The club supports Miles," Pineda said.
Atlanta has been hit hard by injuries this season with veteran midfielder Ozzie Alonso (knee) and goalkeeper Brad Guzan (Achilles) joining Robinson in being sidelined by long-term injuries.
"It's not easy to lose a tremendous (team) culture guy like Brad Guzan," said Pineda. "It's not easy to lose a tremendous culture guy from a different environment like Ozzie Alonso. A guy that can be tremendous in the future as leader like Miles Robinson, it's not easy (to lose him) … Many of the leaders of the team were out for multiple months, some of them for the rest of the season."
Tenth-place Toronto (9-14-7, 34 points) goes into weekend play three places and five points out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
The numbers aren't good for Toronto, with eighth-place New England (9-9-11, 38 points) and ninth-place Inter Miami (10-12-6, 36 points) both having games in hand. Plus Toronto has only three games remaining after Saturday with only one at home.
Toronto, which is just 2-8-4 on the road this season, plays at Orlando and Philadelphia and at home to Inter Miami.
Atlanta (8-12-9, 33 points) is one point and one place below Toronto. The Five Stripes have never lost in five regular-season home matches (2-0-3) with TFC although Toronto won the 2019 Eastern Conference final 2-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But Atlanta has won just two of its last 10 league outings (2-4-4) and is coming off back-to-back road losses in Philadelphia (4-1) and most recently Portland. It has not lost three straight since October 2020, a run that include a defeat at TFC's hands.
Toronto coach Bob Bradley, however is not taking Atlanta lightly.
"They're still a team with a lot of skilful players," he said.
Toronto, which has seen its progress slowed of late, has its own problems holding onto a lead.
TFC led 2-0 after just seven minutes last weekend, only to concede four straight goals in a 4-3 loss to visiting CF Montreal. Toronto squandered a 2-1 lead in the game before that, settling for a 2-2 tie with the visiting Los Angeles Galaxy after conceding an 89th-minute goal.
Toronto had lost just one of seven games (4-1-2) prior to the Galaxy and Montreal matches, a run that coincided with the arrival of Italians Federico Bernardeschi and Insigne.
Bernardeschi (seven goals and three assists), Insigne (six goals and two assists) and Criscito (one goal) have now been involved in 17 of Toronto’s last 20 goals in MLS action, including 11 of the last 12 goals.
Bernardeschi has scored in each of his first five MLS home matches at BMO Field, only the fourth player in league history to do so with a new club.
Bernardeschi also was not involved in the portion of training opening to media Thursday. Bradley said the former Juventus winger was "working inside," without elaborating.
Later Thursday, the MLS disciplinary committee handed Bernardeschi an undisclosed fine Thursday for violating league's policy "regarding hands to the face/head/neck of an opponent" for clash with Kamal Miller in the 72nd minute after the Montreal defender took him down Saturday.
Defence remains an issue this season for Toronto, which ranks 26th in the league in conceding 1.77 goals a game. Atlanta is 20th, giving up 1.66 goals a game.
There could be a change in goal Saturday. Asked after the Montreal game if the team had been getting the kind of goalkeeping it needs, Bradley replied "Not in this last stretch.'
That could pave the way for Alex Bono to give way to Quentin Westberg. Bono has started 24 league games this season compared to six for Westberg.
Toronto got a boost last weekend with the return of Mark-Anthony Kaye, who came off the bench to play the second half against Montreal. Kaye had missed the seven previous games with a lower body injury.
But fellow midfielder Jonathan Osorio remains out — and somewhat a mystery with Bradley saying only that the Canadian international is "not feeling right."
"Everybody's trying to figure out how to help him so that now day-in and day-out he feels better," Bradley said after the loss to Montreal.
"He'll have a day or two (where) he'll feel better, train a little bit and then all of a sudden not feel as good," he added.
Bradley did not elaborate. Asked if the team's medical staff had diagnosed the problem, the coach replied: "Everybody's trying to understand why he's not feeling right."
"We fully support him," he added. "He's had a stretch where he just has been up and down a little bit and not felt himself."
Asked again Thursday about Osorio's situation, Bradley replied: "No change from what we've told you recently."
Osorio and defender Chris Mavinga (lower body) were listed as out injured in TFC’s injury report released Friday. Forward Deandre Kerr (lower body) was listed as questionable.
There was no mention of Insigne in the report.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press