After a winless start in its first four Major League Soccer contests of 2019, Atlanta (4-3-2, 14 points) secured its fourth victory in five games and has won three in a row, each coming with clean sheets. Toronto (5-3-1, 16 points) has now lost two of three.
“It starts with team spirit and belief,” manager Frank de Boer said in his postgame press conference. “Five to six weeks ago, we had a meeting together to really get together and understand each other on both sides [players and coaches]. From there on, we made very good progress.
“We can improve, we have to improve,” de Boer continued. “It’s a big step forward against a very good team, a good opponent.”
The game opened with a flurry. In the fifth minute, Leandro González-Pírez made a 60-yard recovery run and slide tackle in Atlanta’s penalty area on Ayo Akinola to prevent a one-on-one with Brad Guzan. Four minutes later, Miles Robinson lunged to breakup a dangerous cutback pass seven yards from his own goal. A 15th-minute corner for Atlanta resulted in blocked shots from Gressel and Josef Martínez. Franco Escobar then played a dangerous cross into the Toronto box, forcing a desperate headed clearance.
“It was tough, because I think in the first moment it was offside,” González-Pírez said of his early heroics. “But when the referee don’t call it, I have to run. … I tried to do it. Thanks to God I could do it, because it was a great chance for them.”
Atlanta made its breakthrough in the 17th minute. Gressel suffered a hard foul 20 yards from goal — prime free-kick territory for Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez. The Argentine curled his left-footed shot around Toronto’s wall and forced Alex Bono into a diving save. Josef Martínez pounced on the rebound near the by line and pinged a hard, low pass across the face of goal. Villalba stood out from a crowd of players and deflected ball into the net. Cue the Mercedes-Benz Stadium train horn.
May 8, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer greets forward Hector Villalba (15) as he leaves the pitch in the second half against Toronto FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Toronto grew into the game and took control soon after Atlanta’s goal, keeping possession and moving the Five Stripes defenders around. A poor pass from Brad Guzan found United States international Michael Bradley in the 26th minute, but Bradley’s first-time shot on the open goal went wide. Fans at the Benz, still booing Bradley at every touch because of the U.S. World Cup qualifying disaster in 2017, roared with delight.
Atlanta regained a handle on the proceedings in the last 10 minutes of the first half and did not let go.
Gressel doubled the lead in the 67th minute. Villalba dribbled through space toward Toronto’s back line and played a simple pass to Josef Martínez at the top of the penalty area. Josef Martínez laid off to Gressel on the right, and the German cut inside and fired with his left foot from 12 yards. The ball took a small deflection off substitute fullback Justin Morrow and beat Bono at the near post.
The Five Stripes had two goals disallowed for offside.
Pity Martínez did not get on the scoresheet, but this was his best game in an Atlanta uniform. The 2018 South American Footballer of the Year looked much more confident on the ball and in linking up with his teammates. He went a full 90 minutes for the second time in MLS play and in addition to the free kick that led to Atlanta’s first goal, he struck a second dead-ball effort off the crossbar in the 77th minute. Pity Martínez hit the target with one of three shots and created two chances. He sustained three fouls and connected on 62 of his 96 passes.
“I think he’s played better and better, you know, every single game,” Gressel said in the locker-room scrum of Pity Martínez’s performance.
“I still think that he has some ways to go where he’ll be even better in a few weeks, I think. But like I said, he’s quite good. He’s playing with a new team, and we’ve really combined with him a lot better, finding him in the right spots. That’s always important; you want your playmaker in the right spots. I think it will be a joy to watch him going forward.”
Fans in Atlanta have come to know de Boer as a manager obsessed with possession, but Toronto won that statistic 54-46. The Five Stripes made much better use of the ball. They took 19 shots, putting five on target, and created 13 chances. Toronto finished with just eight shots, zero on target, and five chances created.
Atlanta rendered Toronto playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo a passenger. Pozuelo has impressed in his short time with the Reds this season. The former Real Betis attacking midfielder entered Wednesday night’s action with four goals and six assists from his first six MLS games. Against the Five Stripes, Pozuelo created one chance and did not take a shot.
“I think we played really compact when we needed to be, and not just running out like crazy and try to press, but stay compact and try to choose the right moments,” de Boer said. “I think in that defensive part we also did a good job today.”