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Atlanta United looking forward to Toronto, chance to clinch Supporters’ Shield

ATLANTA — After Atlanta United F.C. beat the Chicago Fire at home Sunday, captain Michael Parkhurst shook the hand of a referee, then glanced at one of the scoreboards in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The veteran centerback said just one word when he spotted the final score of a game between the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union: “Darn.”

Had the Red Bulls fallen in Philadelphia, Atlanta would have clinched the Supporters’ Shield. Instead, the race for the Shield is on for another week.

“It’s going to be difficult. Every game is challenging,” Parkhurst said. “You put yourself in a position to control your own destiny, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve got quite an opportunity in front of us next week.”

The Five Stripes are heading north to face a Toronto F.C. team that has thwarted them many times. In three meetings, Atlanta has never beaten Michael Bradley and company, drawing with Toronto each time. In their final 2017 meeting, a 2-2 draw, Toronto knocked Atlanta down from a second seed to a fourth seed for the playoffs.

Atlanta United has a week to prepare for its final game of the second regular season in Major League Soccer, and there’s a lot on the line. A win for the Five Stripes locks up the top spot in the playoffs, the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS record for points in a season.

But a draw or a loss puts Atlanta in limbo because the New York Red Bulls could leapfrog the Five Stripes in the standings with a win against Orlando City.

Toronto is riding a three-game losing streak, but despite that and being eliminated from the playoffs, winning there won’t be easy. The Reds are still equipped with one of the most expensive rosters in the league that features talented players such as Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Gregory van der Wiel. Toronto has a home record of 7-7-2.

Much is at stake, but the Five Stripes don’t seem worried. The players are looking forward to the challenge.

“We took care of business on our side, but unfortunately, they took care of business on their side as well,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said of the Red Bulls. “So, it goes to the final game of the season. When you win trophies, it is never easy. This is another case of being able to roll up our sleeves and go on the road to a tough place like Toronto and get a win.”

Atlanta beat Chicago without the help of two of the best creators in the league, Miguel Almiron and Hector “Tito” Villalba. Both are nursing leg injuries and head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino didn’t hint as to what their availability might be against Toronto. Both players were in the locker room after the win on Sunday.

Not present at Mercedes-Benz Stadium were Brandon Vazquez and Romario Williams, two forwards who have provided attacking depth for Atlanta this season. Martino said Vazquez is dealing with a right foot injury and Williams “had some discomfort” last week.

Without Almiron, Villalba, Vazquez and Williams, Martino leaned on a pair of teenagers to shore up Atlanta’s attack in Ezequiel Barco and Andrew Carleton. Barco had a hand in creating Franco Escobar’s ninth-minute goal and Carleton impressed his teammates with his confidence and skill.

Martino didn’t see starting two teenagers, 18 and 19 years old, together as a risk. And he might do it again in Toronto if nothing changes with Atlanta’s injury report.

“It’s true that they’re young,” Martino said through a translator. “But they have to play because they are good players and they’ve have shown to the coaching staff – in Barco’s case this season and in Carleton’s case for almost two seasons – that they are capable.”

Barco and Carleton combined for 68 successful passes, four drawn fouls, a tackle and a shot on goal.

“We ultimately found a way to score two goals, and that’s all that matters,” Julian Gressel said. “We will learn a lot from this game, and we will see how (Almiron and Villalba) will recover for next week. If they are out again, then I’m sure we will be better because of today’s match.”

Carleton found out the Red Bulls won just a bit before Parkhurst did. The young midfielder, who made the second start of his MLS career on Sunday, had been subbed out late in the game for veteran Jeff Larentowicz. So, Carleton was sitting on the bench in the 91st minute, looked up and saw the scoreboard: Red Bulls 1, Union 0.

For the Georgia native, not being able to celebrate a Shield capture at home gives him more motivation to win a bigger trophy in front of the home crowd of more than 70,000 supporters.

“It would have been pretty cool to be able to win it at home,” Carleton said. “But it makes us want to win the MLS cup at home even more. So, we’ll see how that goes.”

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