A raucous 71,874 fans cheered as Atlanta United battled number one seeded Toronto FC to a 2-2 tie at Atlanta Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday afternoon.
It was a year of firsts as Atlanta clinched home-field for the first playoff game. Four months ago Atlanta United was hosting games at Bobby Dodd Stadium and hovering around the red line. Two months later they were clinching a playoff spot in their new home with a six-game winning streak.
Sunday’s game was all about position and home-field advantage. A win over Toronto guaranteed Atlanta at least one home playoff game. Depending on how other games finished up, the Five Stripes could have ended up as high as the number two spot or as low as the number five spot. No matter how it shook out being in the playoffs is a big accomplishment for a first-year team.
Being in the playoffs also means Atlanta United has as good a chance as any to play for and win an MLS Championship.
United took command of the match in the 31 st minute. A handball penalty on Drew Moor gave Yamil Asad a penalty kick. Asad stepped up and thundered the ball past Alexander Bono for a 1-0 lead.
Joey Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco had good looks early but Brad “Mr. Clean Sheet” Guzman swallowed up both shots.
Toronto didn’t draw even until the 60th minute. Altidore managed to get forward and found the back of the net. “I thought Brad (Guzan) was going to come for it and he thought I was going to clear it,” explained defender Jeff Larentowicz. “It ends up in a tough spot–where it is chest height– and it’s tough for me to figure out what to do with it. I have to clear the danger before that even occurs next time.”
Josef Martinez gave the lead back to Atlanta United with a goal in the 74th minute. The goal was therapeutic for the striker. Minutes before his goal, Bono made a diving grab on a through ball into the box intended for Martinez. The frustration from the seven near goal attempts culminated in Martinez kicking a hole in the board behind the goal.
With the goal, Martinez finished with the best goalscoring rate (1 goal per 80.4 minutes) in the league.
There was no mistaking why Toronto was the best in the East. They kept battling and pressuring the Five Stripes defense until something happened. A penalty on Michael Parkhurst gave Giovinco a free kick from 25 yards out. The Italian forward placed a perfect ball in the upper right of the goal that scraped the bottom of the crossbar and into the back of the net.
Anton Walkes nearly gave Atlanta United the win at the end but Bono was able to dive and get a hand on the shot. The deflected ball landed at the feet of Bobby Boswell. Boswell let it fly. Only a game effort from a seated Bono and US Men’s Team veteran Michael Bradley kept it out of the net.
Atlanta will face Columbus Crew SC in the knock-out round on Thursday, October 26, at 7:00 PM.