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Atlanta United stifles Toronto FC attack by limiting Alejandro Pozuelo

Three takeaways from the Five Stripes’ 2-0 win.

Julian Gressel [center] celebrates a goal as Josef Martinez [left] and Eric Remedi walk back to the center circle during Atlanta United's 2-0 win over Toronto FC on May 8, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Julian Gressel [center] celebrates a goal as Josef Martinez [left] and Eric Remedi walk back to the center circle during Atlanta United's 2-0 win over Toronto FC on May 8, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

ATLANTA — Alejandro Pozuelo burst into Major League Soccer as a sort of savior for Toronto FC. The Reds, a year removed from winning the Supporters’ Shield-MLS Cup double, crashed to earth in 2018. Toronto missed the playoffs, though it did draw some satisfaction from denying Atlanta United its first trophy on the final day of the regular season. After a disappointing year, the front office decided Sebastian Giovinco, perhaps the league’s best player over the prior three seasons, was too old. Toronto shipped Giovinco off to Saudi Arabia.

The starting 11 had a huge attacking void, and another down year looked inevitable. Then Toronto signed Pozuelo from Genk in Belgium. Pozuelo made an immediate impact, pulling the strings underneath Toronto’s forwards and dropping four goals and six assists in his first six games.

“We know he’s a great player,” midfielder Eric Remedi said through an interpreter after Atlanta’s 2-0 win Wednesday. ”The idea was to not let him receive the ball and have time when he’s in front of goal. We wanted to close him down.”

Entering the matchup against Toronto, Atlanta had three wins — all clean sheets — in its previous four games. Further improvement in the attack was imperative, but stopping Pozuelo, and thus stopping Toronto, was just as important. Job well done: Atlanta picked up its fourth clean sheet in five games. Pozuelo was invisible.

“We tried to be more careful with him,” centerback Leandro González-Pírez said. ”We tried to keep close to him every time when he received the ball, and maybe we did great because he never could be comfortable with the ball and comfortable on the pitch, so maybe we did great.”

The Five Stripes did not allow Pozuelo to take a shot. He played a single key pass, per WhoScored, and lost possession five times. Frank de Boer made the 27-year-old Spaniard the focal point of his team’s defensive strategy, and it paid off. The dominant victory sees Atlanta above the playoff line for the first time this season, and it inspired good vibes emitting from the locker room.

“We know a lot of their attacks start through him,” Remedi added as Latin music blared overhead. “He’s great at assisting on the play and he can also shoot and finish with both feet. You don’t even know what’s his strongest foot. He’s a good player, so we knew if we could shut him down, then that would limit a lot of their attack, but they’re also a really good team.”

Hector “Tito” Villalba scored his first goal of the year, Julian Gressel scored his second in MLS play and Josef Martínez continued his transformation from goal-poacher to well-rounded playmaker with two assists. Atlanta’s less-discussed defense once again proved it may be the foundation in the de Boer era.

Early defensive heroics

Villalba scored in the 17th minute, giving Atlanta an early advantage that allowed it to dictate the game. A couple of chest-clutching moments prior to that goal could have changed things dramatically.

Five minutes in, Toronto center forward Ayo Akinola was running free from the halfway line toward the Five Stripes’ goal, seemingly destined for a one-on-one chance against Brad Guzan. González-Pírez had none of it. The centerback tracked Akinola down in the penalty area and cleared the ball out for a corner kick with a perfectly timed sliding tackle. Atlanta fans broke out into a loud chant of “L-G-P! L-G-P!”

González-Pírez and his manager both thought the play was offside, but the flag stayed down. “Thanks to God I could do it, because it was a great chance for them,” he said after the game.

In the ninth minute, Miles Robinson had his goal-saving moment. Toronto winger Nick DeLeon beat Brek Shea and González-Pírez on the dribble and got to the by line not far from Guzan’s goalmouth. DeLeon played a cutback pass for Akinola, who stood unmarked in the center of the field, six yards from goal. Robinson lunged and deflected the ball away with his right foot to prevent a shot that surely would have rated highly on the xG scale.

“Lately, already, those two are in great form,” de Boer said of his centerbacks. “They’re doing a great job. Especially those two moments … were crucial, coming down against a team that also wants to drop back and wants to make you suffer in transition.

“So those two are in good form, and hopefully they can stay like that.”

Near miss for Pereira

Dion Pereira signed with Atlanta from Watford FC’s academy in January. The speedy 20-year-old made his debut in the 2-1 loss to FC Dallas, and he saw action again Wednesday night against Toronto. Pereira was Atlanta’s third substitution and played just four minutes, but he nearly opened his goal-scoring account with the club.

Pereira found the back of the net with his first touch in the 87th minute, tapping in a pass from Martínez. Alas, the assistant referee’s flag went up for offside. Martínez was off by the slimmest of margins on his initial run behind Toronto’s defense.

“Obviously at the moment, I thought, ‘Let me just score,’” the Englishman said. “I don’t really know what was the decision, but when I saw Josef’s reaction I thought there was something wrong with it. It seemed like it was offside, but always next time, next week, get another chance.”

De Boer instructed Pereira to play positively and put pressure on the Toronto back line. The winger, who subbed on for Villalba, gave Atlanta fresh legs and helped the Five Stripes kill the game. In the 90th minute, he made another good run and drew a foul in the attacking third.

Pereira thought this was an improved performance over his cameo against Dallas. With Atlanta facing a congested schedule this month and potential absences looming when the Gold Cup and Copa America tournaments come around in June, he could be on the verge of a bigger role with the team.

“Football’s football, you always have to be ready for your chance,” Pereira said. “I was ready today, and obviously [Ezequiel] Barco’s been with Argentina [at the Under-20 World Cup in Poland], and I take it as my opportunity to show what I can do, because we’ve been training, training, training, and I was ready for the chance.”

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