MARIETTA, Ga. — When Atlanta United and Toronto FC meet in the Eastern Conference final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday night, Atlanta manager Frank de Boer expects Toronto to run a similar system used in the Reds’ upset of New York City FC. Toronto defeated NYCFC, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, 2-1 at Citi Field in New York with creative midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo playing as a “false nine” center forward.
“Why change when they had such a good result in this system?” de Boer rhetorically asked reporters Monday. “It’s legitimate that they’re going to play with the same idea with Pozuelo as a false nine. We’re preparing for both [Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore], but I’m convinced they’re going to play with Pozuelo as a striker.”
Altidore is Toronto’s preferred center forward when healthy and contributed 11 goals and seven assists in 22 regular-season appearances this year. But, he has missed each of Toronto’s first two MLS Cup playoff games with a hamstring injury. Manager Greg Vanney said Sunday he is hoping to have the United States international available against Atlanta.
“We haven’t put him in front of goal to do a lot of shooting. … We’ll start hitting some balls over different distances [Monday], then building into some final prep work on goal hopefully on Tuesday,” Vanney said, per the Canadian Press. “I know he feels and looks like he’s close. And so [we’re at the] final stages now of hopefully getting him ready and having him be a part of the group and play a role.”
Still, de Boer believes Altidore may appear only if Toronto is chasing a goal.
“I think Jozy, what I read in the newspapers, they are preparing him,” de Boer said. “I think they’re going to play him as a sub if they have to force something.”
Pozuelo played as a false nine in Toronto’s 3-2 home win over Atlanta June 26. He leveled the score in the 27th minute and won the game with a penalty in second-half stoppage time. Pozuelo roamed all across the field and played four key passes, each of which came from the right side of the Reds’ attack. Should Vanney deploy Pozuelo in the same way Wednesday, Atlanta will need to show more defensive discipline in order to limit the Spaniard’s options and time on the ball.
“We were too wide, so they could really play us out,” de Boer said. “He also dropped in and every time we were too late [to defend him]. I think we did against Philadelphia, we did that really good when we don’t get pressure, the first priority [was to] be compact and then choose your moment [to press]. Then there is no space to run into. For me that’s going to be key, those moments recognizing when you can press or first come together and then press from there.”
If Altidore does come on as a sub, it will present a difficult challenge for Atlanta to adjust on the fly. While Pozuelo will want to move around and affect the game from a deeper position, Altidore is a physical player who will stay near the center backs and look to use his body to win the ball and create space. His ability to hold up possession allows other Toronto attackers to run in behind the defense.
“We’re going to have to be ready for both,” Julian Gressel said Monday. “We don’t know Jozy’s status obviously, but Jozy’s a guy who’s going to stay up there and hold the ball up, that’s going to body our center backs and try to be physical and then get on the end of crosses and things like that. But he also does really well linking up, just kind of holding off [defenders] and laying one touches to the sides.
“Pozuelo is more of a guy who like to be on the ball, likes to face the game, likes to take some guys on, so it’s obviously very, very different. Our center backs will prepare for both, and if that switch were to come, that they know how to handle both situations.”
As for success with a system, Atlanta switched to a 4-2-3-1 in its Eastern Conference semifinals win over the Philadelphia Union and controlled the game. The Five Stripes moved to a 5-3-2 to close out the game. This flexibility is key for de Boer’s tactical outlook.
“We can easily swap from system to system,” he said. “The personnel that we have on the field, it’s easy to go from three, it’s easy to go to four in the back. So just one sign and, hey, we don’t feel comfortable right now because they’re going to explore spaces that we cannot cover. Then you can say, ‘OK we’re going to do it with three or we’re going to do it with four.’ That’s the advantage that they know exactly how to operate in each system.”