Back-to-back games on the road against last year’s MLS Cup opponents is a brutal scheduling quirk, but the Five Stripes are trying to deal with the hand they have been dealt. Last week, Atlanta United earned a point against the defending MLS Cup champions in their house. Today, they visit Toronto to face last year’s runner-up.
Toronto has not lost in 2017 with one win and three draws. They have three shutouts so far this season and have only allowed two goals. Starting goalkeeper Clint Irwin suffered a hamstring injury last week in their scoreless draw with Sporting Kansas City and will be out of action Saturday. Alex Bono will replace him in the starting lineup. Bono won eight games during Irwin’s injuries last season.
The Reds’ star-studded offense has not gotten on track so far with 2015 MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco goalless this season. U.S. national team striker Jozy Altidore has two of the team’s four goals. Newly signed Spanish midfielder Victor Vazquez should be fit to start tonight and will provide attacking support to Altidore and Giovinco.
Atlanta is still adjusting to life without star striker Josef Martinez, who is expected to be out for a few more weeks with an injured left quadriceps muscle. Right winger Tito Villalba started up top in his place last week in Seattle, but with an injury in training this week to winger Jacob Peterson, he might be needed in his normal position. Kenwyne Jones performed well in a substitute appearance and could be in line for a start tonight.
- Toronto’s three-man backline will be very different than Atlanta’s opponents so far this season. When manager Greg Vanney made the change last season, it sparked the Reds’ run to MLS Cup and greatly improved the team’s previous Achilles’ heel. Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta, and Nick Hagglund clog the middle and make it hard for opponents to find space to operate.
- However, Atlanta will be able to find space on the flanks due to Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour pushing forward often. Tito Villalba and Yamil Asad can stretch Toronto’s backline to open space for the forward and attacking midfielders to run through.
- Pressuring Hagglund and Zavaleta can cause turnovers, they have low passing percentage marks and Toronto tries to avoid building up attacks through them.
- Expect to see Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel push higher to join the forward in pressing Toronto’s backline and create three-on-three opportunities. The Five Stripes will like their chances in those match-ups.
- Victor Vazquez’s inclusion can make Toronto a much more dangerous team going forward. He will create chances for Giovinco and Altidore and make the 3-5-2 shape more effective. Atlanta’s defensive midfielder Carlos Carmona, along with Gressel and Almiron, will have to keep tabs on Vazquez. Giovinco also likes to drop deep to get on the ball and find space in between the midfield and defense.
- The heavyweight fight to watch tonight is Jozy Altidore vs. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. If the Atlanta center back can neutralize Altidore, Toronto will find it much more difficult to get their offense on track.