Saturday afternoon’s match-up between MLS title leaders Atlanta United and playoff-chasing Toronto FC was appealing for a number of reasons. Not only did it promise to be an entertaining and free-flowing match, with the final 2-2 result delivering upon this expectation, but the pedigree of the individual talent on show was undisputed.
Atlanta striker Josef Martinez scored twice to move within two of the MLS record for the number of goals scored in one season, and Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono pulled off a handful of stunning saves to keep the Reds alive in the match.
However, it was the contest between the playmakers of each side, Miguel Almirón of Atlanta, and Sebastian Giovinco of Toronto, that was of utmost fascination. The two players are at different stages of their careers, with 24-year-old Almirón learning how to ply his trade in MLS, and 31-year-old Giovinco taking MLS by storm after a respectable career in his native Italy with Parma and Juventus.
Heading into the game, Almirón was in dazzling form, with eight goals and eleven assists so far in the season signifying his threat in a free-scoring Atlanta side. For Seba, two goals in his previous two meetings against Atlanta, as well as 61 goals and 47 assists in 104 MLS appearances illustrating his excellence.
Both teams deployed three centre-backs and four midfielders, the only difference being that Almirón started in an advanced position behind the two strikers for Atlanta, and Michael Bradley screened the Toronto back-three instead of deploying Giovinco behind two strikers.
From kick-off, Almirón enjoyed plenty of the ball, with Martinez and the ever-threatening runs of second striker Héctor Villalba giving the Toronto back-three plenty to contend with. In a stark contrast, Seba played just off the more muscular and less mobile Jozy Altidore, with completed passes between the two proving few and far between. Giovinco successfully burst forward from the half-way line early on, but was left isolated by a lack of offensive support, and was quickly gobbled up after five Atlanta players surrounded his advancing position.
Midway through the first half, Almirón found himself 12 yards from goal with only Bono to beat but scuffed a left-footed shot wide of the far right post with a disappointing attempt on the turn. He was perhaps surprised that he had so much time and space and failed to capitalise.
Conversely, Giovinco needed no second chance when his opportunity finally arrived in the dying embers of the first half. Seba struck in first-half stoppage time to send Toronto 1-0 up at half-time. Altidore rolled a perfect ball to Auro, cutting back to Seba, who finished with aplomb past Brad Guzan from close-range.
However, Atlanta struck back within minutes of the second half. Martinez was felled by Bono in the box and converted his penalty with deadly assurance. Seba’s frustration boiled over at 1-1, picking up a booking for a cynical kick-out at Eric Remedi shortly after the Atlanta onslaught after the Martinez penalty.
Martinez struck again minutes after, this time from open play, glancing a lovely header past Bono from Villalba’s cross. Martinez was withdrawn shortly after, yet it was Almirón’s failure on the counter-attack to play the perfect pass thereafter that was most disappointing from an Atlanta perspective especially in the context of the frenetic final minutes of the match.
Undeterred by his misfortune of smacking the crossbar from outside the box just before stoppage time, Seba kept his composure to slice through the Atlanta defence, effectively creating Tosaint Rickett’s equaliser with a beautifully incisive pass that took Julian Gressel out of play, leaving Jonathan Osorio with the simple task of squaring to Ricketts.
It was Seba’s lethal and magnificent performance that once again affirmed his standing as one of the league’s best players. He saw much less of the ball than Almirón and was playing in a system directed by coach Greg Vanney that unfortunately, but necessarily limited his creative capacity. However, Seba thrived when he found space in Atlanta’s final third and propelled Toronto back into the reckoning of the Final Series play-off places, a prospect so distant a few weeks ago.
Giovinco picked up an injury shortly after the match, ruling him out for Toronto’s crunch first-leg tie against Vancouver Whitecaps in the Canadian Championship final.
Nevertheless, as far as MLS matters are concerned, the Reds stand in greater stead thanks to the Italian magician, who triumphed against Atlanta, and showed Miguel Almirón that to be the gallant playmaker your team needs, you must convert your chances.