Atlanta United

ATL UTD draw reigning champions Toronto FC in back-and-forth Eastern Conference clash


It was a back-and-forth match between the reigning MLS Cup Champions and the current Supporters’ Shield leaders, but both teams have to settle for a point after a hard-fought 2-2 draw between Toronto FC and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Saturday.

With Franco Escobar forced to the sideline for an accumulation of yellow cards, head coach Tata Martino made some changes to the lineup that started in Montreal last week. Jeff Larentowicz slid to the back to create a three-man back line, with Julian Gressel at wing back and Kevin Kratz coming into central midfield. The full XI: Brad Guzan (GK), Leandro González Pirez (CB), Michael Parkhurst (CB), Jeff Larentowicz (CB), Chris McCann (LWB), Eric Remedi (CDM), Kevin Kratz (CM), Julian Gressel (RWB), Miguel Almirón (CAM), Tito Villalba (ST), Josef Martinez (ST).

The first half started with both teams testing each other, poking at the opposing defenders but not trying to give a chance away on the other end. Atlanta United started to break through the back line on the half hour mark, with Miguel Almirón and Josef Martinez both inches away from capitalizing on major chances to take the lead. Toronto, who is back to their best after a slow start to the season, made the Five Stripes pay for missing their chances, with Sebastian Giovinco scoring on the final touch of the half to take a 1-0 lead to halftime.

Giving up a lead with the first shot allowed in the match could have deflated Atlanta United, but it was clear it only galvanized them further in the locker room at halftime. The red, black and gold came out firing in the second half and turned their pressure into the equalizer within eight minutes. Josef Martinez received the ball at the end of slick passing play and was brought down in the box by Toronto’s Alex Bono. After the referee pointed to the spot, the Venezuelan was as clinical as he has been all season to make the score level.

The Five Stripes were riding a wave of momentum after that, piling on the pressure to take the lead. Less than 15 minutes later they got it, with Tito Villalba sending a pinpoint cross onto the head of Josef Martinez, whose glancing effort went between Bono’s legs and in. The goal was Josef’s 26th of the season, just one behind the all-time single-season record.

But Toronto had some fight left and got the equalizer in stoppage time, with Ricketts sliding in to tap home a pass across goal from close range. It was a bittersweet night: a comeback for Atlanta United with a heavy lead in stats in terms of shots and possession –– but in the end, a standout performance from the Toronto goalkeeper means the Five Stripes have to settle for a point in front of yet another rowdy crowd of 45,191 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Atlanta United now get a week off to rest and prepare for the back stretch of the MLS regular season, and still sit at the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings at the time of the final whistle. They’ll be back at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in two weeks to face the Columbus Crew in another major Eastern Conference test. Tickets to that match are still available, so make sure you’ve reserved yours here.

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