Despite the listless performance by Toronto FC, a stellar header by Pablo Piatti at the death of the game secured another victory for the best team in the league.
With news of the ISC’s abolition of the Supporter’s Shield this year, a dubious shadow was cast over all of the competing teams on Sunday night, not least of which being Toronto FC, who are the current point leaders in the league.
The current hardware drama notwithstanding, the Reds — for several purposes, but most importantly pride — would undoubtedly remain keen to finish the regular season in first place. Their recent contest against the NY Red Bulls, while certainly featuring some moments of tantalizing of play, saw the squad struggle with finishing, and was an overall a step down in quality. Going into their match against the low-seeded Atlanta United, TFC was keen reestablish their authority and, plainly, take out some frustration on their opponents.
Toronto started the game with energy but lacked crispness. Through the opening 10 minutes they were moving quickly on United players, but were not retaining the ball well enough to create genuine chances. Select Atlanta players—predominantly midfielder Jurgen Damm, who seemed to be carrying the majority of the United’s playmaking responsibility—were able to produce chances against Toronto, but as a whole their side looked hesitant on both offence and defence.
As has happened a lot this season, Toronto was able to better footing as time went on. The accretive touches on the ball found them increasingly sure, but they lacked that truly deadly demeanour which in previous games granted them the lion’s share of possession. Specifically, TFC was relying heavily on long, supposedly surgical balls over or through the defence to try and generate opportunity, though most simply found the keeper.
In the 20th minute, with warnings of worsening injury, Jonathan Osorio exited the match was substituted with Michael Bradley, his first appearance after nine missed.
His introduction seemed to make TFC even sleepier. While pound for pound their possessions were better than Atlanta’s—and with Bradley came a mildly more calculated tone to TFC’s movement—they were playing a muddled game. Often it seemed as though they were unconsciously waiting for MVP front runner Alejandro Pozuelo to single-handedly find a way through the malaise.
By the 30th minute, it felt like the opening goal would come from individual inspiration rather than corporate strategy. Atlanta were playing better than at the start, but struggled to locate any noteworthy invention when near Toronto’s box. Notably for TFC, though, the longer Bradley stayed on the pitch, the more fluid Toronto was playing in the middle. That being said, neither side maintained any imagination for any significant period of time; for all the microscopic improvements on either side, the first half of the night was near silent for both keepers as well as for football charisma at large.
At the 45 the score sat at a limp 0-0.
Atlanta came out in the second half a much better side. They were attacking with drive and pressuring TFC all over the pitch. The Reds were looking lazy. Despite many early transition chances, Toronto would either fumble the opportunity without a shot or launch the ball fecklessly at the Atlanta net.
By the hour mark, Atlanta’s early flame had died down and both teams found themselves once again in a flavourless stalemate. Each of Toronto’s offensive chances brought with them the veneer of lethality, whilst the offencemen would charge madly at the United’s box, but every attempt petered out after a procession of indecisive passes.
In the 67th minute the anemic stance caught TFC off guard, giving Atlanta a golden opportunity. Fortunately, Quentin Westberg, as he so often is, was up to the challenge.
At the 80th minute the game seemed a firm and almost inevitable deadlock. Neither squad was making any real inroads toward shifting the score or the approach, and increasingly the players were showing signs of fatigue.
In the final five minutes, TFC found some obscure vein of effort and pushed harder than they had almost at all through the whole game. In the 88th minute, as seems to keep happening this season, Toronto performed a miracle.
With a shrewd approach, and after a bit of trickery, Richie Laryea’s deflected centre found was found by Pablo Piatti who glanced it with hyper-accuracy into the low corner of the net.
Not long after the full time whistle blew, the goal sealing Toronto FC’s 1-0 victory.
But this game was odd. An odd game in a progressively odd season.
TFC, just like in their last match, had moments—small, fleeting moments—where they could convince you they had something cooking—where piquant little pieces of play, like appetizers, could convince you of something sumptuous not far off, even if right now there is not much to eat.
It happened tonight. Despite lots of sloppiness, despite an overarching lack of initiative and determination, a single moment allows them the full three points. But that shouldn’t distract from the fact that they did not play well. They they looked like they had little to fight for. They are making a campaign at this point of pilfering wins right from the pockets of their opponents.
As the shadow of ISC decision hangs unflinchingly over MLS, it should be considered how much determination the Reds can cook up if there is nothing—no fans, no recognition—to nourish them. If all that exists as a goal is the MLS Cup. If—for all their magic moments and good wins—Toronto will have the spirit to persevere when it really matters.
For now, they have yet another win. Maybe all they need is their daily bread. In a few more moments, we’ll know for sure.
FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS