Atlanta United (15-9-9) are pushing for a first-round bye in the MLS Cup playoffs as they host Toronto FC (20-5-8) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday. Most MLS fans know Sebastian Giovinco (perhaps the best player in MLS over the past few seasons), Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley (staples in the U.S. Men’s National Team), but Toronto has plenty of other weapons. Here’s what Five Stripes fans should look out for in the regular season finale:
Man in the Middle
While Michael Bradley is a known quantity among MLS fans, his partner in the center of the park has been one of the relevations of 2017. Barcelona youth product Victor Vazquez leads the team – and ranks second in MLS – with 16 assists, and has chipped in with 8 goals of his own so far this season. Toronto coach Greg Vanney has called him one of the best playmakers in the league, and his addition has been a big factor behind the team scoring more than 20 more regular-season goals than they did last year. If Almirón is the metronome of the Atlanta United offense, Vazquez fills that same role for Toronto. He recently had a staggering 83 touches in the opponent’s half last month, and MLS ranked him as the top-performing midfielder in the month of September. Toronto will look to find Vazquez early and often, and Atlanta will need to make sure he doesn’t have time to feel comfortable on the ball in space.
Often deploying a three-man back line, Toronto loves to get their fullbacks forward into space. And there may be no better defender at impacting the game in the attacking third than Justin Morrow this season. The left back has eight goals this year, including a hat trick against the New York Red Bulls on September 30th that earned him MLS Player of the Week honors. He’s only the second defender in league history to score a hat trick, and that was his second MLS Player of the Week honor this year. Morrow was also one of two players to score against Atlanta in the last matchup between these two teams, so the Five Stripes will know full well to keep an eye on his runs forward.
Solid at the back
Despite a rough outing in the Toronto’s last match against Atlanta earlier this year, defender Chris Mavinga has settled to help anchor the league’s second-best defense this season. A true contender to Leandro González Pirez as the best defensive addition to the league this season, Mavinga’s impressive recovery speed and strength to hold off defenders has helped anchor the back line into one of the most impressive units in MLS. There is some good news, with Toronto’s defensive record on the road a little shaky in recent weeks. The club has recorded just one clean sheet in their past 11 road matches, while Atlanta United has held the opposition scoreless in seven of their last nine matches.
The match kicks off at 4:00 p.m. EST on Sunday, and a limited number of tickets are available for purchase here. If you can’t make it in person, make sure to tune in on Fox Sports South as Atlanta United looks to jump into second place in the Eastern Conference standings.