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Atlanta United sorely misses RB Franco Escobar in loss at Toronto FC

Three takeaways from the Five Stripes’ gut-punch defeat in Canada.

Jun 26, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC midfielder Richie Laryea (22) is fouled by Atlanta United FC defender Miles Robinson (12) setting up a penalty kick late in the second half at BMO Field. Toronto FC beat Atlanta United FC 3-2. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Jun 26, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC midfielder Richie Laryea (22) is fouled by Atlanta United FC defender Miles Robinson (12) setting up a penalty kick late in the second half at BMO Field. Toronto FC beat Atlanta United FC 3-2. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Atlanta United suffered a gut-punch loss at Toronto FC Wednesday night, falling 3-2 when Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo converted his stoppage-time penalty kick and Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez failed in executing his own chance from the spot at the death. 

Forget about the VAR controversies, the wild ending and the lack of finishing. Atlanta’s biggest problem was Franco Escobar’s absence. Escobar missed out due to a suspension for yellow-card accumulation, and the Five Stripes were out of sorts as a result.

Michael Parkhurst started in Escobar’s place at right fullback. At this stage of his career, Parkhurst, 35, does not possess the pace and stamina to bomb up and down the wing all game. He must pick and choose his moments. When Parkhurst elected to sit back against Toronto, Atlanta lacked width in attack and struggled to generate chances. When Parkhurst pushed forward, the Five Stripes were exposed defensively, and Toronto moved the ball into the attacking third with ease.

With Parkhurst’s aforementioned limitations and Pity Martínez’s disinterest in tracking back defensively, Toronto identified Atlanta’s right flank as a potential weak link. The Reds attacked down their left all game, and their first two goals came via crosses from that side. Escobar might not have made up the difference between Atlanta being the defensive juggernaut it has been this season and the sieve it was Wednesday night, but he would have helped. He may be the Five Stripes’ most important player.

As Mike Conti, the radio voice of Atlanta United, noted on Twitter, Atlanta is 0-3-2 without Escobar this season and 8-3-0 when the Argentine is in the lineup. Escobar will be eligible to return Saturday against the Montreal Impact at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Vazquez: Everything but the obvious

In metro Birmingham, Ala., back in the late ’90s, there was a high school football coach who had a catchphrase for glaring mistakes. This coach, in charge of his team’s wide receivers, kindly said “everything but the obvious” when one of his players ran a good route but then dropped a pass. That is, the player did everything right, other than the most important thing. It was a positive form of criticism that would not weigh too heavily on adolescents.

This line sums up Brandon Vazquez’s first Major League Soccer start: everything but the obvious.

Take away his finishing, and the 20-year-old performed well. His hold up play was good, he found teammates with intelligent lay-offs and he made good runs through the Toronto back line. In the 22nd minute, Vazquez shredded Reds centerback Laurent Ciman to get to the byline and hit a dangerous cross that resulted in Atlanta’s second goal.

Of course, Vazquez is a striker, so finishing is the most important thing. With the score level in the second half, he had numerous chances to put the Five Stripes ahead. During a 25-minute stretch, Vazquez was on the ball in Toronto’s penalty area four times as a result of good runs or dribbles, and he could not put a shot on target. 

Before the game, on the Fox Sports South television broadcast, play-by-play man Kevin Egan asked manager Frank de Boer where Atlanta would get its goals with Josef Martínez, Héctor “Tito” Villalba and Ezequiel Barco out of the lineup. “Hopefully from Brandon Vazquez, of course,” de Boer said before also mentioning Pity Martínez and Dion Pereira.

Josef Martínez still is away with Venezuela at the Copa America. Vazquez showed enough to earn another start Saturday against Montreal, but he was unable to strike a winning blow for Atlanta in Toronto. He did everything but the obvious.

El Pity reliving his River Plate start

Pity Martínez scored his second goal of the season with a first-half penalty against Toronto, but it was his miss from the spot on the last kick of the game that is the talking point. (The news traveled fast back to Argentina.) Atlanta’s blockbuster January signing once again did not exert his influence over 90 minutes, and failing in an opportunity to salvage a point for his team was a metaphorical moment for his season thus far.

Pity Martínez came to Atlanta in January with much hype because of the way he finished his career at River Plate. In 2018, El Pity was the best player in the Copa Libertadores and led River to the title over hated rival Boca Juniors. He earned the honor of South American Footballer of the Year.

But Pity Martínez’s start with Los Millonarios was not so heralded. In the 2014-15 season, he tallied five goals and eight assists in 43 games across all competitions. Supporters at the Monumental were vocal in their criticism.

When asked about the slow start in Atlanta, de Boer and his players always say Pity Martínez simply needs time to adjust to his new surroundings and that he eventually will break through. During his debut season at River, he averaged a goal or assist every 174 minutes. Right now, Pity Martínez averages a goal or assist every 348 minutes in all competitions for Atlanta.

Pity Martínez is supremely talented, but it is time to wonder whether the time he needs to adjust translates to a full season at the least.

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