The recurring theme witnessed throughout the start of Toronto FC’s 2017 campaign involves Greg Vanney’s Reds serving as frustrated figures against organized defensive units. However, stylistically, Atlanta United FC’s visit to BMO Field presented a contrasting challenge that should’ve favoured last year’s MLS Cup finalists.
But despite TFC’s star-studded attacking options upfront against a fairly open travelling Atlanta side, the Reds designated players were outshone by Miguel Almiron and Hector Daniel Villalba. The former’s appreciation of space exposed TFC’s imbalanced midfield, whereas the make-shift back three, featuring Chris Mavinga’s first home start, were terrorized by the latter’s pace.
Almiron’s threat was evident in the opening two minutes when the Paraguayan drifted goal side of Bradley to received possession to ignite an attack, whilst minutes later dribbling past the TFC captain before being shrugged off the ball by Armando Cooper. This year, teams have preferred to sit back and attempt to nick a goal on the counter attack against the Reds, but Atlanta’s proactive approach flustered the hosts.
One aspect of TFC’s game that’s often overlooked is their vulnerability in central areas out of possession, particularly when Bradley is forced to mark an intelligent no.10 in the mould of Almiron. Likewise, the aforementioned threat of Almiron and Villalba led to Atlanta’s opener, as the former received the ball in acres of space to the left of Bradley and instantly slid a through ball behind Mavinga resulting in Villalba slotting his shot past goalkeeper Alex Bono.
In recent matches, TFC encountered periodic difficulties because opposing forwards and advanced midfielders would solely focus on limiting Bradley’s time on the ball. Here, Almiron dominated the TFC captain in both phases: The Paraguayan harried Bradley when he received the ball, but also cleverly received possession in pockets of space across the final third. Almiron’s teammates also aided the Paraguayan with his defensive duties to force Bradley into conceding possession cheaply, as Martino’s men were comfortable in possession and utilized the pace of the forwards and Almiron’s creativity.
Still, the issue with playing so open against the hosts equally presents space for TFC to utilize in the final third. Ultimately, TFC’s equalizer was a combination of Victor Vazquez’s advanced positioning and the link-up play between Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. It was one of the rare moves where Altidore moved towards the ball – as he often aimed to charge behind the Atlanta back-line or dart into the channels – when Giovinco dropped into midfield.
Altidore and Giovinco were both guilty of spurning opportunities around the box, with majority of the chances stemming from Giovinco’s deep positioning, Bradley receiving the freedom to push forward, and Vazquez playing closer to the opposition’s penalty box. TFC took the lead in the final minutes of the first half via Jeff Larentowicz’s poor clearance that led to Vazquez guiding Steven Beitashour to the byline to combine with fellow wing-back Justin Morrow for an easy tap-in.
Nonetheless, Atlanta equalized within the first minute of the second half following another defensive lapse from Mavinga, which invited Villalba to latch onto a simple long ball over the TFC defence and coolly notch his second goal of the night. Martino’s men increased the tempo of their game and successfully dispossessed Bradley and Vazquez to ignite swift transitional breaks with Almiron being denied twice by Bono.
Where the Paraguayan’s threat briefly decreased in the first half when he dropped ahead of the TFC midfield, the variation in movement towards the channel and beyond the defence reinvigorated Atlanta’s offensive threat. Almiron and Villalba continued to pester the Reds with their direct counter-attacks, but apart from audacious long distance efforts from Vazquez, Vanney’s men were quiet in the second half.
Martino’s men dropped closer towards goal in the second half to limit space behind the defence, but the congested midfield zone, and diligent defensive work from the away side’s wide players nullified TFC’s productivity in the final third. With Yamil Asad wrongly sent off in the final 15 minutes, Martino sacrificed his star players to preserve a point in what will be classified as a remarkable away performance.
Very few MLS sides can come to BMO Field and outperform Vanney’s Reds, but here, Almiron dominated the centre of the pitch, and displayed a proactive method to exploit Bradley’s deficiencies as the sole pivot. Stifling Bradley has developed into a pattern that most sides are leaning towards, and though TFC’s profligacy in the final third may eventually translate into goals, their productivity on both ends of the field can no longer be taken lightly.