Depending on which type of red you wear, your answer to the above question might be slightly biased. I know where my heart lies.
Atlanta United has had a fabled first season, both on and off the pitch. Their young, skilled players and swashbuckling style have garnered fans across the league. Toronto FC has also had a fabled 2017 (understatement of the year).
On Decision Day, Atlanta and Toronto will battle it out in MLS’ end-of-season marquee match. Over 71,000 tickets have already been sold for the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That’s more than twice the number of fans at a BMO Field sellout.
But there are more than just bragging rights, and the promotion of the league, at stake. Atlanta is looking to secure a playoff bye and home-field advantage in the second round. Toronto is not only looking to set the single season points record, but is also in need of a solid team performance prior to defending their Eastern Conference title.
Remember the first time these two teams met? A thrilling first 45 minutes at BMO; two embarrassing goals by Hector Villalba; a controversial red card to Yamil Asad; no handshake between the two coaches. The result: a 2-2 draw.
A lot has changed since that chilly, April night. Both teams have matured over the course of the season, and have established their identities heading into the playoffs. The media outlets for both sides expect a lengthy run through November. Both fan bases have passionately supported their heroes, and continue to do so – each claiming superiority. But, who really is the better team?
Atlanta: Brad Guzan – The American international has played 13 games, earning eight shutouts and posting a remarkable 0.62 goals against average. He has stopped 34 of 42 shots, for a fantastic save percentage of 80.95. His career has taken him from MLS to England, and back to MLS. He is an FA Cup finalist (2015) with over 15 years of professional experience.
Toronto: Alex Bono – Playing in 28 games this season, the second-year keeper has 10 shutouts and an impressive 1.09 goals against average. His save percentage is also respectable - 70.00. He has shown maturity well beyond his years, and marshals his back line as well as any keeper in the league.
Depth: Both squads currently have capable back-up goaltenders that could start for other MLS teams (Alec Kann for Atlanta and Clint Irwin for Toronto).
Verdict: Based on Guzan’s experience, and the success that he has had so far this season, the edge goes to the southerners. Atlanta 1-0 Toronto.
Atlanta: United’s back four has allowed 38 goals over 33 games. They have given up three or more goals only four times this season, and have permitted an average of four shots on target per match. They are anchored by MLS veteran Michael Parkhurst, boast an attacking threat in Greg Garza and a solid, transitional lead in Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
Toronto: The Reds officially play a back three, conceding a conference-best 35 goals in 33 games. They have given up three or more goals only three times this year. Veteran centre-back Drew Moor is traditionally flanked by Eriq Zavaleta and Chris Mavinga. Together with Toronto’s wing-backs, these three have limited the opposition to a mere 3.5 shots on target per game.
Depth: TFC definitely has the upper-hand. Injuries and extended absences have plagued Toronto’s defence throughout 2017, but their depth on the back line has allowed the Reds to keep marching on.
Verdict: Toronto with the advantage. Atlanta 1-1 Toronto.
Atlanta: The trio of Miguel Almiron, Yamil Asad and Julian Gressel has netted 20 goals and recorded 35 assists. Their speed and offensive creativity is balanced by Carlos Carmona, Jeff Larentowicz and Chris McCann. As a unit, they are quick to capitalize on turnovers. Atlanta’s typical starting midfield averages 178.6 passes per game, with 11.1 of those being long balls. Such is the engine that propels United’s attack.
Toronto: With its 3-5-2 formation, Toronto officially plays a five-man midfield. Their top three offensive threats - Victor Vazquez, Justin Morrow and Marky Delgado – have combined for 19 goals and 22 assists. But with two wing-backs and captain Michael Bradley in the middle, the Reds’ midfield ebbs and flows between offence and defence. With the extra player in the centre of the pitch, TFC’s midfield averages 249.9 passes per game, 15 being of the long ball variety. Removing one of the wing-back’s stats to equate it to Atlanta’s four-man unit, Toronto’s midfield still has a higher average - 218.5 passes per match and 14 long balls.
Depth: Toronto has a capable back-up at every midfield position, except for the Victor Vazquez role. From an offensive standpoint, this gap is significant. But, Atlanta has a similar gap. Almiron is to Atlanta what Vazquez is to Toronto. Since Almiron’s injury, United have won only once in four attempts, scoring a mere five goals over that span. Further depth comparison shows that Toronto’s midfield bench has scored 11 times and racked up 14 assists, versus two goals and four assists by United’s reserves.
Verdict: By virtue of its depth, its flexibility between offence and defence, and its passing stats, TFC is the victor (pun intended). Atlanta 1-2 Toronto.
Atlanta: When they are both healthy, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba are the best striking duo in the league. Eighteen goals for Martinez in just 19 games, along with Villalba’s 13 goals in 32 games equates to a combined MLS best of 1.57 goals per 90 minutes. While their height limits their aerial abilities (both are listed at 5’6”), their speed and strength on the ball have created havoc for opposing defenders all year long. In fact, Villalba’s 10 assists are the most of any forward in the league.
Toronto: Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore have accounted for 29 goals this year. Impressive as this is, both players are more valuable to their team than just scoring goals. Altidore’s size and strength creates space for his teammates to exploit. Giovinco has shown a tremendous amount of resourcefulness by rediscovering his dangerous left foot and playing a deeper role in midfield.
Depth: Due to lengthy absences by both Giovinco and Altidore, Tosaint Ricketts has played over 1,000 minutes this season. He has tallied seven of TFC’s nine bench goals, scoring at a rate of 0.63 goals per 90 minutes. In contrast, Atlanta forwards Jacob Peterson, Kenwyne Jones and Brandon Vazquez have played a combined 842 minutes, scoring three, two and one goals respectively (combined rate of 0.64 goals per 90).
Verdict: TFC fans will be upset. But the youth, speed, skill and efficiency of Atlanta’s attack gives United the edge at forward. Atlanta 2-2 Toronto.
Just like that chilly April night, we are tied. But, this time, we have to declare a winner.
Coaching: Gerardo (‘Tata’) Martino has imposed his signature high-press and speedy attack on this Atlanta outfit. It is quite similar to the styles that he encouraged at Barcelona and with the Argentinian national team. But Tata has been caught flat-footed at times; unable to properly adjust his personnel and tactics to accommodate the situation. For instance, he underestimated Miami FC during the U.S. Open Cup and lost to the NASL squad in the fifth round. More recently, he failed to adjust his formation late in the game and handed lowly Minnesota United a 3-2 victory. This, despite Atlanta having taken the lead in the 72nd minute.
Conversely, Toronto’s Greg Vanney has been quite adept at adjusting his personnel and formation to suit the game at hand. Pre-game changes, as well as mid-game changes, have been the hallmark of Vanney’s success so far. Despite significant injuries to key players, numerous clusters of games in quick succession and players lost to international duty, Vanney has steered his team to the best record in the league and, so far, his team has won every trophy on offer (including the Trillium Cup - #savethecrew).
Record and Standings: Atlanta has played 18 matches against teams below the playoff line. This is two more games, and the possibility for six more points, than Toronto. Yet the Reds are 14 points clear of Atlanta in the standings. Toronto has the best home record and the best away record in the league, indicating an ability to grind out results in diverse conditions and environments. By contrast, Atlanta has the fifth-best home record and the fourth-best road record - not bad, but not on par with Toronto.
Through depth, coaching and player commitment, the Reds have enjoyed two lengthy unbeaten streaks during 2017 – one lasting eight games and the other lasting 11 games. Atlanta’s best undefeated spell lasted eight games and was fueled, in large part, by their move to their new digs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Teamwork: Watching a full-strength Atlanta side is like watching an all-star team. But, like an all-star team, sometimes Atlanta resembles a collection of dueling talent as opposed to a cohesive unit. This was evident during their September thumping of hapless, nine-man New England. Atlanta’s players clamoured to take free kicks and penalties. The big four of Martinez, Villalba, Almiron and Asad competed with each other to pad their personal statistics. Throughout the season, these same players have demonstrated a tendency to be overly demonstrative when their teammates have missed the target, or when the ball has not been passed in their vicinity. By contrast, these individualistic traits are almost non-existent on the Toronto side of the ledger.
Atlanta’s lack of discipline, and somewhat individualistic play (relative to Toronto’s), is further evidenced by their incursion stats: 422 fouls committed by Atlanta vs. 345 by Toronto; 62 yellow cards against Atlanta vs. 44 against TFC; five red cards against Atlanta vs. one against Toronto.
Perhaps it’s a youth thing. Perhaps it’s because this is their first year together. But, even at this late stage of the season, Atlanta does not demonstrate the same sense of teamwork as the Reds.
Verdict: Toronto wins on intangibles. Atlanta 2-3 Toronto.
Guess my heart was right after all.