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Toronto FC’s playoff hopes melted away in Hotlanta on Saturday night.
Saturday’s match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta was a wild, action-packed affair featuring two clubs fighting tooth and nail to get above the MLS Eastern Conference playoff line.
In the end, after crawling back to tie the game twice in the second half, a depleted TFC side fell to host Atlanta United 4-2 on the strength of a hat-trick by Five Stripes’ centre back Juan Jose Purata — his goals all coming via headers. With the loss, TFC dropped to 13th place in the MLS Eastern Conference — seven points out of a playoff spot with only three games left and six teams to jump over.
The season is all but over for the Reds.
All six goals came in a highly charged second half with Atlanta going ahead three times before Thiago Almada right-footed a tremendous strike from outside the box to the right corner for the home side’s third, which proved to be the winner.
Purata opening the scoring early for Atlanta. Ayo Akinola tied it before Purata put the home side ahead 2-1. Federico Bernardeschi then leveled the match 2-2 — his eighth goal in 10 MLS matches and his fifth goal via a penalty kick. Atlanta finished the match with goals from Almada and Purata.
Though the Reds fought hard and had some chances, if not for goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, Atlanta would have scored at least a couple more. Atlanta held the edge in possession (54%-46%) and fired 27 shots to eight by Toronto. The Five Stripes directed 10 shots on goal while TFC recorded two.
TFC has never won a regular season game in Atlanta, though it defeated the Five Stripes in the 2019 Eastern Conference final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Reds were without a number of key players. Not making the trip were left winger Lorenzo Insigne (personal family issue), midfielder Jonathan Osorio (upper body injury) and centre back Chris Mavinga (lower body). The three TFC Italians — Insigne, Bernardeschi and Domenico Criscito — have been involved in 18 of TFC’s past 22 goals in MLS action.
Jayden Nelson, 19, took over from Insigne at the left wing spot.
Westberg started in goal for the first time since July 13 and made some huge saves in the game, including on an Atlanta penalty kick early in the match. Westberg replaced Alex Bono, who has let in a couple of iffy goals the past few games.
Atlanta was without star striker Josef Martinez who was suspended by the club for “conduct detrimental to the team”.
Westberg made his presence felt early when he made a huge save on a penalty kick in the 12th minute on Luiz Araújo after he dove to his left to keep the ball out. The PK came as a result of TFC centre back Shane O’Neill fouling Brooks Lennon in the box.
Westberg made another good save on a strong left-footed blast by Araújo from outside the box in the 32nd minute.
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In the 34th minute, Bernardeschi, who had a quiet first half, drew a penalty kick when he waded into the box, took a shot as he went down and the ball hit the hand of Atlanta defender Amar Sejdic. Referee Rosendo Mendoza called the foul, but then was summoned to check the VAR and then ruled that there was no foul and no PK.
Despite that chance, the Reds were fortunate to get out of the first half without giving up a goal. The Atlanta players began getting frustrated in the late stages of the half having not been able to score despite producing a number of chances.
Criscito picked up a yellow in added time in the first half and didn’t return for the second.
Westberg made a sensational save on Almada after a horrible giveaway from TFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who fed Almada the ball right in the box at the start of the second half. Seconds later, Purata scored on a strong header after a corner kick.
Toronto responded positively after the goal. In fact, a minute after Purata scored, Richie Laryea then fed second-half substitute Jesus Jimenez with a perfect pass in the box from the left side and Jimenez directed the ball just wide of the goal with his right foot.
TFC kept the pressure on after Jimenez’s chance, resulting in Akinola’s first regular-season goal since May 21 — no doubt a huge relief for the Brampton native. Jimenez picked up a midfield pass from Michael Bradley and then found Akinola as he charged towards the Atlanta goal. After a block in his first shot, Akinola picked up the ball again and right footed shot from the right side of the six yard box into the goal in the 52nd minute.
Atlanta scored a second goal in the 62nd minute on another corner kick with a Purata header after the corner kick went off the heads of two other Atlanta players before reaching Purata in front of the goal.
The goals just kept coming after Jimenez was brought down by Purata just inside the box after a pass from Bernardeschi. The Italian took the penalty kick and buried the ball into the low right corner, tying the match 2-2, before Atlanta scored two more to end the match.
Westberg made his best save of the night when he dove to his right to stop Almada from point blank range, giving TFC some life with just four minutes left.
Centre back Doneil Henry came in the second half marking his 100th appearance for the Reds. Henry played for the Reds on two other occasions before this year, from 2010-13 and then again in 2014.
The Reds next play on Saturday at Exploria Stadium in Orlando.