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Toronto FC shocks Atlanta United 2-1 in MLS Eastern Conference final

The Five Stripes’ MLS Cup title defense ended Wednesday night.

ATLANTA — Atlanta United’s MLS Cup title defense came to a surprising halt Wednesday night. The Five Stripes fell 2-1 to Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Substitute Nick DeLeon scored a 78th-minute winner for the Reds, evading three Atlanta defenders at the top of the penalty area. Franco Escobar, Jeff Larentowicz and Julian Gressel appeared to have DeLeon covered, but everyone backed off after the forward completed a circular dribbling move, and he fired from distance into the top corner. Darlington Nagbe was behind the play, slow to get up from a hard challenge.

“Obviously we were upset, we think it’s a foul on Darlington, and they catch us on a break,” Michael Parkhurst said in the locker room after the crushing defeat. “We get guys back. We do well to slow up their counterattack right on top of the box on DeLeon and have a few guys around him. I don’t know what happens. Everybody thinks that somebody else is going to stay with the ball and we start to pick up runners. For half a second we let him free, and he takes a great shot. We should have had more pressure on the ball there.”

Toronto will travel to the Pacific Northwest to meet the Western Conference champion Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup final Sunday, Nov. 10. Seattle upset Supporters’ Shield winner Los Angeles FC on Tuesday night.

Seattle and Toronto will face off in Major League Soccer’s championship game for the third time in four years.

The Five Stripes launched to a flying start in a game that was expected to be tight and cagey. A Florentin Pogba flicked header and a well-executed turn and pass from Ezequiel Barco sent Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez through on goal. Instead of taking his one-on-one chance against Quentin Westberg, El Pity laid off for the trailing run of Gressel, who tapped into an open net less than five minutes after the opening whistle.

Seemingly everyone in the building expected Martínez to shoot, and Westberg was left rooted to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf. Gressel celebrated by giving the credit and a warm embrace to his assisting teammate.

Martínez once again ran free into the attacking third after expertly controlling a Larentowicz long ball in the eighth minute. Toronto captain Michael Bradley clipped Martínez from behind in the penalty area, and Atlanta players argued Bradley should have been sent off for an upper-body foul and denial of a goal-scoring opportunity. Referee Alan Kelly did not here the shouts and ruled Bradley had attempted to make a play on the ball. Still, Atlanta looked to be going up 2-0 inside 10 minutes. 

But Westberg saved Josef Martínez’s penalty, and the momentum turned.

Oct 30, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United midfielder Gonzalo Martinez (10) reacts with defender Julian Gressel (24) after scoring a goal against Toronto FC during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

“We had our chances,” manager Frank de Boer told reporters in his post-game news conference. “The penalty and maybe a red card — I don’t know what the rules exactly are. You see a lot of times they give a red card in that moment and a penalty, and now they gave a yellow card. [If] it’s 2-0, they have to come more and [instead] they made quickly the equalizer.”

Four minutes after the Venezuelan’s miss, Nicolas Benezet received a long pass from Laurent Ciman and whipped a curling shot from the left channel inside Brad Guzan’s far post.

The goal was created by Alejandro Pozuelo’s movement from center forward. Pozuelo dropped into midfield and dragged Michael Parkhurst off Atlanta’s back line. Franco Escobar was forced to cut inside to cover Jonathan Osorio’s diagonal run into the area. Gressel scrambled from midfield to defend Benezet, but he could not cut down the shot.

“I think two movements. I think it was Osorio who made the run behind, and then Pozuelo because he’s a false nine drops in, but then we have to play zonal,” de Boer said. “There was no pressure on Benezet at that moment.

“Still I think we had enough time to recover. I think we didn’t react well to the long ball, and then he cuts inside and shoots well because it was the side of the net. But you know he’s right-footed, so we can do better, I think, in those cases. It was really the first time they tried to attack us, a long ball, and we knew that. We said, Ciman always wants to give long balls. He loves that, and still we get a little bit surprised and we get punished for that in that moment.”

Atlanta’s manager and players felt hard-done by the result in the immediate aftermath. “The better team doesn’t always win,” Parkhurst said. The captain had a point.

Atlanta took 19 shots to Toronto’s four through 90 minutes. The Five Stripes controlled 60 percent of the possession and won 57 percent of the game’s 77 individual duels. The Reds were compact in defense for much of the night, and Atlanta struggled to generate good attacking chances, but de Boer’s side did look best.

“We controlled I think 95 percent of the whole game,” de Boer said. “If you can do that against a side like Toronto, who wants to do pressure high up, and you saw at the end of the first half they were already looking to the sideline, had to drop deeper, play more compact because they couldn’t get the pressure on us. So I was really satisfied.”

This was Parkhurst’s final game in an Atlanta uniform. The 35-year-old announced his impending retirement in September at a time when he was no longer receiving regular minutes. But Miles Robinson picked up an injury going into the playoffs, and Parkhurst was thrust back into action.

He showed well in two postseason games and made a speedy recovery from a dislocated shoulder in between. Atlanta’s back line did not see a dip in quality without Robinson, who was an MLS Defender of the Year finalist.

“I take solace in the fact that I ended the season, I thought, playing well,” Parkhurst said. “I would have been disappointed had I come out here and cost the team and had some bad performances late in the season, but I’m just glad that didn’t occur and I could finish this season, personally, doing OK.”

Josef Martínez carried a hamstring injury picked up during Monday’s training session and did not leave his typical stamp on the game. Aside from the missed penalty, he took two shots, neither of which were on target. De Boer considered a substitution but believed the center forward would eventually find his moment.

“I was considering that, but then I saw the two times that he really made a sprint and almost made a goal, so I thought, ‘OK, maybe now he’s over it and just let it go and he could continue.’ It crossed my mind, that’s for sure,” de Boer said. “But he was so important this season for us, and you sometimes saw that glimpse again that suddenly he was gone. I still had the confidence that when the chance comes he will be on the right spot.”

The loss ends an up-and-down year for Atlanta. Replacing Gerardo “Tata” Martíno and Miguel Almirón was never going to be easy, and the Five Stripes suffered a slow start with their new manager and No. 10. Atlanta faded down the stretch of the regular season, but still managed to finish second in the Eastern Conference. In August, the team won two trophies, the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup.

In the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday night, one exiting fan held her head high in the face of defeat. “I think they overachieved,” she said. De Boer echoed that sentiment.

“If you can control and play like this against a Toronto side, who was really moving up with its performance in the last couple of weeks — I spoke to the manager also and he said, ‘We didn’t deserve it,’ but they’re in the final and we’re not,” de Boer lamented.

“That’s harsh again. That’s sports, and that’s also the beauty of sports. It’s a part of life, and we have to continue. We had a great season, and we wanted to end it not like this, but it ended like this and we can look back very proudly at what we achieved.”

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