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Hopes for the Toronto FC play-offs melted away in Hotlanta on Saturday night.
Saturday’s game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta was a wild, action-packed affair with two clubs battling tooth and nail to rise above the MLS Eastern Conference playoff line.
Finally, after crawling back twice in the second half to equalize, an exhausted TFC side fell to take on Atlanta United 4-2 thanks to a hat-trick from Five Stripes centre-back Juan Jose Purata. come through headers. The loss dropped TFC to 13th place in the MLS Eastern Conference – seven points from a playoff spot with just three games left and six teams to jump over.
The season is almost over for the Reds.
All six goals came in a highly charged second half with Atlanta going forward three times before Thiago Almada made a great attack from outside the box to the right corner for the home side’s third, who turned out to be the winner.
Purata opened the scoring early for Atlanta. Ayo Akinola equalized before Purata gave the home side a 2-1 lead. Federico Bernardeschi then made it 2-2 – his eighth goal in 10 MLS games and his fifth goal from a penalty. Atlanta closed the game with goals from Almada and Purata.
Although the Reds fought hard and had some chances, if it weren’t for goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, Atlanta would have scored at least a few more goals. Atlanta held the lead in possession (54%-46%) and fired 27 shots out of eight through Toronto. The Five Stripes fired 10 shots on target while TFC took two.
TFC has never won a regular season game in Atlanta, though it defeated the Five Stripes in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Reds were left without a number of protagonists. Left winger Lorenzo Insigne (personal family issue), midfielder Jonathan Osorio (upper body injury) and central defender Chris Mavinga (lower body) did not make the trip. 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 for Insigne on the left flank.
Westberg started in goal for the first time since July 13 and made some massive saves in the game, including a penalty kick in Atlanta early in the game. Westberg replaced Alex Bono, who has scored some questionable goals in recent games.
Atlanta was without star striker Josef Martinez, who was suspended by the club for “conduct harmful to the team”.
Westberg was on hand early on when he made a massive save on a penalty kick in the 12th minute off Luiz Araújo after diving to the left to keep the ball out. The PK came as a result of TFC centre-back Shane O’Neill’s foul by Brooks Lennon in the penalty area.
Westberg made another good save in the 32nd minute on a strong left shot by Araújo from outside the box.
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In the 34th minute, Bernardeschi, who had a quiet first half, took a penalty when he waded into the penalty area, shot down and the ball hit the hand of Atlanta defender Amar Sejdic. Referee Rosendo Mendoza called the foul, but was then called to check the VAR and ruled there was no foul and no PK.
Despite that opportunity, the Reds were lucky enough to get out of the first half without conceding a goal. The Atlanta players started to get frustrated in the late stages of the half as they were unable to score despite creating some chances.
Criscito picked up yellow in extra time in the first half and did not return for the second.
Westberg made a sensational save on Almada after a terrible giveaway from TFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, who gave Almada the ball right into the penalty area early in the second half. Seconds later, Purata scored on a strong header from a corner.
Toronto reacted positively after the goal. A minute after Purata scored, Richie Laryea fed substitute Jesus Jimenez in the second half with a perfect pass into the penalty area from the left and Jimenez sent the ball just wide of the goal with his right foot.
TFC kept up the pressure 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 pass in midfield from Michael Bradley and found Akinola as he charged toward Atlanta’s goal. After a block in his first shot, Akinola picked up the ball again and shot into the goal with the right from the right side of the six-meter box in the 52nd minute.
Atlanta scored a second goal in the 62nd minute on another Purata header after the corner went off the heads of two other Atlanta players before reaching Purata in front of the goal.
The goals kept coming after Jimenez was knocked down by Purata just inside the penalty area on a pass from Bernardeschi. The Italian took the penalty and buried the ball in the bottom right corner, making the game 2-2, before Atlanta scored two more to end the game.
Westberg made his best save of the night when he ducked to the right to stop Almada from afar, giving TFC some life with just four minutes left.
Centre-back Doneil Henry came into the second half to mark his 100th appearance for the Reds. Henry made two more appearances for the Reds earlier this year, from 2010-13 and then again in 2014.
The Reds will play at Exploria Stadium in Orlando next Saturday.