Of all the unforgettable moments in Atlanta United’s brief history, the biggest could be coming this weekend. A win in their final match of the regular season would officially clinch their first trophy: the Supporters’ Shield, honoring the best regular season record in all of MLS. They would also set the all-time record for points in an MLS season, but to do so, they’ll have to beat the current owners of that record, Toronto FC, in a final road test of the year.
Ahead of the potentially historic match, we broke down the Tools to the Match, presented by The Home Depot.
The Atomic Ant
During last year’s record-setting run in Toronto, no one was more dangerous than the 2015 MLS MVP, Sebastian Giovinco. And with Jozy Altidore ruled out for Sunday’s match, there’s no question he will be the main threat. He has all the attacking skills: a tricky dribbler, incisive passer and lethal finisher, the Italian international will be constantly trying to break through the Atlanta back line. Just like when they face other star attackers, Atlanta United’s defenders’ focus will be preventing him from getting the ball in space. That lets him get up to speed, combine with his teammates, and put the defense on their heels. Keeping a constant presence near him, both on the ball and off of it, will cut off his supply and slow down his flow. It’s all about avoiding one-on-one situations that allow him to use his skill to beat his man and create a scoring opportunity. If Atlanta United can do that, it will go a long way to shutting out the Toronto attack. Finally, avoid cheap fouls around the penalty box. There is no one in MLS history that has been more lethal with direct free kicks, so not giving him a chance to score from there will be key.
Spread out the midfield
Despite the absence of Víctor Vázquez, Toronto excels with a strong core in their midfield. U.S. international Michael Bradley is still a top-tier defender, passer and organizer in the center of the pitch, while Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado round out a trio as strong as any team in the league. The key will be to break up their flow on the attacking end and spread them out when Atlanta United takes the ball back the other way in transition. This is a team that excels when they’re compact –– with tight touches and intricate passing, they’re neat in close quarters on the ball and cohesive when they’re on the defensive side. Spreading them out will leave holes for Atlanta United to exploit and get a head of steam to unleash a counter attack on their back line.
Keep the pressure
The main difference between Toronto’s record-setting year and this one has been their defense, which ranks in the bottom 5 in MLS in goals allowed so far this year. Injuries and inconsistent form have led to vulnerabilities, and the Five Stripes will look to exploit them. Peppering Alex Bono’s goal could force Toronto into a mistake. And if Atlanta does take the lead, it’ll be important for them not to sit back. Finishing the game off with a two-goal cushion was something Atlanta United struggled with last weekend against the Fire. Atlanta United putting the game out of reach with their attack could be the best way to relieve pressure on their defense.
Follow the Match:
Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, with the match set to be broadcast on Fox Sports Southeast. You can listen to the game on the Atlanta United app or on the radio: 92.9 The Game or, for Spanish-speaking listeners, La Mejor Atlanta. Click here for a full rundown of how to follow along with the game.