TORONTO — Midfielder Marky Delgado showed off his video game skills Sunday, helping lead Toronto FC to a 4-0 aggregate win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the eMLS Tournament Special.
But the esports celebrations were short-lived as a late goal by Josef Martinez ended TFC's run in a 3-2 Atlanta United aggregate win over two games. It was a measure of virtual revenge for Atlanta, which lost 2-1 to visiting Toronto in the 2019 Eastern Conference final.
Delgado tied Atlanta's Argentine defender Franco Escobar 1-1 in their opening matchup. But TFC pro gamer Phil (PhilB94) Balke lost 2-1 to 17-year-old Brazilian Paulo Neto, his Atlanta counterpart, on Martinez's 84th-minute strike.
Atlanta dispatched Orlando City SC 4-0 on aggregate earlier Sunday to set up the Toronto showdown.
Atlanta advances to face New York City FC on March 17 in one semifinal. Los Angeles FC plays Sporting Kansas City in the other semifinal.
The eMLS Tournament Special started April 19 with 16 teams, each fielding a player and esports representative. All the matches have been played remotely with the MLS and eMLS players competing from home.
With Delgado at the controls, the virtual Delgado scored as Toronto blanked Vancouver 3-0 with Whitecaps defender Erik Godoy at the helm in the esports matchup using EA Sports' FIFA game.
Balke then edged Alex (Exraa) Gonzalez-Aldana, his Vancouver counterpart, 1-0 to complete the 4-0 aggregate victory.
"He's talented. I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Balke said of Delgado.
In the opening game with Delgado in charge, Jozy Altidore opened the scoring in the ninth minute but Josef Martinez tied it up as the first half came to a close. Brad Guzan made two keys saves for Atlanta early in the second half.
Delgado showed no managerial fear, taking off captain Michael Bradley in the second half for Venezuelan winger Erickson Gallardo. The switch almost paid off as the speedy Gallardo came close to feeding the virtual Delgado late in the game.
Alejandro Pozuelo scored in the seventh minute for Balke's TFC in the deciding game after the Atlanta defence failed to clear its penalty box. Atlanta came close in the 29th minute but a clearance by a TFC defender just went over the crossbar.
Pity Martinez slammed a high shot home in the 44th minute to tie the game 1-1 and Josef Martinez fired home the late winner.
Pity Martinez scored two second-half goals for Escobar's Atlanta in a 2-0 opening win over Portugal star Nani's Orlando.
"The ref didn't help us in the game," said a smiling Nani.
Josef Martinez and Pity Martinez scored highlight-reel goals for Atlanta in the pro gamers' matchup.
Pozuelo opened the scoring for Delgado's TFC team against Vancouver with a low shot in the 15th minute, jumping over the corner flag in celebration. Argentine newcomer Pablo Piatti went in alone for Toronto soon after but Vancouver 'keeper Maxime Crepeau made the save to keep the score at 1-0 at the break.
Delgado took matters into his own hands and doubled the lead in the 50th minute, firing the ball home after taking a pass in front of goal. Bradley then scored on a tap-in at the far corner in the 65th minute after some Piatti magic on the edge of the penalty box.
Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg made a big save late in the game to deny Vancouver.
In Game 2, with Balke starting with a 3-0 aggregate lead in charge of TFC, Altidore came close but his shot flew wide. After another fine Westberg save at the other end, Piatti smashed in a shot in the 82nd minute after a ball from Pozuelo.
Piatti has yet to play for Toronto for real, rehabbing an injury since signing in early February.
"He's a nice guy and I can't wait until he gets healthy and can get on the pitch when it's safe to get back outside," said Delgado.
MLS Works, the league's social responsibility platform, and Fox Sports are making donations to Feeding America, with MLS also supporting Food Banks Canada as part of the tournament.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press