Atlanta United, sans team captain Brad Guzan and leading contributor Thiago Almada, faced Toronto FC at BMO Field in the second meeting between the two clubs in six weeks. The result Saturday was the same as the first time around on March 4 — both sides found the back of the net and the match ended in a draw, this time 2-2. It's the second straight road result for Atlanta United.
The visitors were on the track to steal a massive three points on the road after goals from Giorgos Giakoumakis and Machop Chol gave Atlanta United a 2-1 lead. However, Toronto FC continued searching for the equalizer and eventually found it in the match's dying moments. Midfielder Brandon Servania's left-footed shot in the 94th minute rolled in to extend Toronto's unbeaten streak to seven matches and leave the 5-Stripes with a disappointing point.
"Very frustrated, upset," Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said after the match. "Second time in a row that we're winning and then we concede goals and we cannot reward ourselves with three points. Because I felt the team did enough to get three points. But we couldn't finalize that and that's where we need to learn."
The 5-Stripes opened the scoring early. Luiz Araújo made the effort to create a takeaway in Atlanta's defensive third, then sent a long ball to Derrick Etienne Jr. running up the field. The play led to an Atlanta United corner kick taken by Brooks Lennon. Lennon played the ball somewhat short in the air and Giakoumakis, leaning away from goal, flicked it with his head to score his fourth goal in as many straight matches. Atlanta United grabbed a 1-0 lead in the fourth minute.
In his debut for Atlanta United, goalkeeper Quentin Westberg was called into action in front of his former club. At the 14-minute mark, Westberg stopped what was nearly an Olimpico goal that Federico Bernardeschi whipped in from the corner flag. The goalkeeper came up big again in the 29th minute, showing twitchy reflexes to stop a redirected header on a corner kick.
The 5-Stripes couldn't get out of the first half with a clean sheet however, and Toronto FC equalized in the 43rd minute. Bernardeschi set up the opening goal for the Reds — and Richie Laryea did the rest, carrying the ball forward and evading multiple challengers. Atlanta's defense was unsettled and couldn’t quite catch the speedy fullback, and he took a shot right at the top of the 18-yard box with his right foot to finish.
Atlanta United regained the lead in the 76th minute. Chol who entered the match as a second-half sub, used his 6-foot-2 frame to head a cross from Araújo toward the far post. The flick froze Toronto FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson and for a moment looked like the game-winner. It was the first career MLS goal for the forward from South Sudan.
"I was just hoping it wasn't offsides or anything, but it felt amazing," Chol said. "I didn't know what to do. It was just a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts."
Player availability created some shake ups in Pineda's lineup. For the first time this season, Atlanta United was without their captain from the previous seven matches with Guzan unavailable due to an MCL injury. Westberg filled in and started in goal for the 5-Stripes on a pitch where he made 25 regular season starts for Toronto, his former club. Atlanta was also without Almada (lower leg) and Franco Ibarra (red card suspension), so Santiago Sosa and Matheus Rossetto made the starting XI to round out the midfield along with Amar Sejdić.
Giakoumakis proved to be active throughout the first half. Not long after he scored, he drove Johnson to make a mistake. Under heavy pressure from Giakoumakis, the goalkeeper tried to lift the ball over the 6-foot-1 striker, but it ricocheted off Giakoumakis’s head. Later at the 18-minute mark, Giakoumakis forced Johnson to make a save with another header attempt on goal.
But Pineda had to take off Giakoumakis in the opening minutes of the second half after the striker went down on the field with an apparent injury. Miguel Berry subbed on for him up top at striker in the 50th minute. Andrew Gutman also came on in the second half, replacing Caleb Wiley and getting fresh legs to mark Bernardeschi. It was Gutman's first appearance since sustaining an adductor injury during the Columbus Crew match on March 25.
Losing Giakoumakis disrupted Atlanta United’s rhythm for awhile, and the visitors struggled to create chances and press with the same intensity they did with him on the pitch. Toronto took advantage and appeared to be the more aggressive side for portions of the second 45. Atlanta United’s defense held strong and kept the Reds off the score sheet deep into the second half, until Servania's equalizer.
As expected, the right side of Toronto’s attack was a battle for the Atlanta United defense. Wiley at left fullback matched up often with Bernardeschi. The 18-year-old kept up with Bernardeschi, forcing the former Juventus player and current leading scorer for the Reds toward the sideline to prevent him from going to his left foot. Wiley would clear a dangerous opportunity, heading away a Toronto cross from right near the goal line in the 53rd minute. Gutman, too, covered Atlanta United's defensive left side well, at one point blocking a Bernardeschi shot. He also spread the ball well into areas during Atlanta's attacking moments, including sending the initial ball to Araújo that set up Chol's goal.
"Very happy with other things," Pineda said. "Very, very happy also with the pressure, the possession in certain moments, how we disrupt their pressure very well in many parts of the game, Machop's first goal in MLS. So, a lot of positives as well. It's just a sour taste in our mouths because we lost two points in the last minute of the game."
Up next - Atlanta United returns home for a Sunday match
After two straight road trips, the 5-Stripes return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium next weekend when they host Chicago Fire. The match is on Sunday, April 23 and will have an earlier kickoff time at 4:30 p.m.
Don't miss a moment of the action. Secure your Atlanta United ticket today!
Match Highlights: Toronto FC vs. Atlanta United | April 15, 2023