Toronto FC looks to bounce back in Atlanta after painful season-opening loss
Two teams on different ends of wild comebacks in last week's MLS season openers face off Saturday when Toronto FC visits Atlanta United.
Toronto is coming off a painful 3-2 loss at D.C. United in a game that saw it take a 2-1 lead after scoring in the 66th and 83rd minute, only to give up goals in the 90th and 98th minute.
Atlanta enjoyed a comeback of its own with highlight-reel goals from distance by Thiago Almada in the 93rd and 99th minute securing a 2-1 home win over the San Jose Earthquakes before 67,538 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Almada's spectacular free kick in the 99th minute won MLS goal of the week honours. His 93rd minute goal, from outside the penalty box in a rehearsed move off a corner, was runner-up in the voting.
"They have some very skilful players," said Toronto coach Bob Bradley. "I think everyone saw what Almada was capable of doing in the second part of the season last year. So he starts out (this season) with these two great goals … They've got other guys that are talented and good on the ball."
Almada, a World Cup winner with Argentina, was named MLS player of the week after becoming just the second player in MLS history to score both an equalizing and game-winning goal in stoppage time, and the first Atlanta player to score twice in stoppage time.
There are question-marks over the availability of both Italian star winger Lorenzo Insigne and Spanish midfielder Victor Vazquez for Toronto, whose roster depth is a concern. Both are listed as questionable.
Insigne limped off in the first half last weekend, seemingly favouring his groin. Vazquez has been sidelined since taking a shot to the ribs in a Feb. 11 pre-season game against Los Angeles FC.
Including last season, Toronto has lost six in a row, giving up three goals or more in five of those outings. The club has only had one longer regular-season losing streak — in 2012 when it lost nine in a row to open the campaign.
Still Atlanta is not taking TFC lightly.
"I think we all know what they can do with the ball," said Atlanta defender Miles Robinson. "They've got a great midfield. But I think so far we've focused on how we can break them down and things like this."
The season opener saw both Robinson and goalkeeper Brad Guzan return from lengthy injury absences due to a ruptured Achilles. Guzan was hurt April 16 and Robinson May 7.
Atlanta is waiting on a visa for new designated player Giorgos Giakoumakis, a Greek international forward acquired from Scotland's Celtic.
Toronto will be playing on turf in Atlanta. While not a popular choice of playing surface, it is what TFC has been training on under the bubble at home due to wintery weather.
"Their turf will be different than this," said Bradley. "Does it help? Maybe. It's not something that the players enjoy, They feel little things. You have to tweak your training loads accordingly."
Late rally aside, Atlanta had 60.5 percent possession against San Jose, a 20-10 edge in shots (5-4- in shots on target) and eight corners to the Quakes' three. Sixteen of Atlanta's shots came from outside the 18-yard box.
Toronto had 55.9 percent possession against D.C. and, despite trailing 10-7 in shots (5-4 in shots on target, an XG (expected goals) of 2.3 compared to 0.8 for Atlanta.
Atlanta finished 11th in the Eastern Conference last season with 40 points, six ahead of 13th-place Toronto.
Atlanta is unbeaten at home (3-0-3) against Toronto in regular-season play but lost 2-1 to TFC in the 2019 Eastern Conference final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Both teams have gone through major changes since then.
Of the 18 players that dressed for Toronto in that 2019 playoff game, only three remain with the team: captain Michael Bradley, fellow midfielder Jonathan Osorio and fullback Richie Laryea. Guzan is the last man standing for Atlanta.
Toronto will see a familiar face on the Atlanta bench in former goalkeeper Quentin Westberg. Last week, it was former 'keeper Alex Bono among the D.C. substitutes.
Atlanta midfielder Santiago Sosa is serving the final game of a three-match ban for using a homophobic slur in Atlanta’s match against New England on Oct. 1
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2023
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press