Toronto FC eliminated from MLS playoff contention in ill-tempered loss to Atlanta

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Toronto FC was officially eliminated from MLS playoff contention in an ill-tempered 2-0 loss to Atlanta United on Saturday night.

Brazilian forward Luiz Araujo delivered the coup de grace with a goal in first-half-stoppage time to give Atlanta its first victory at BMO Field in five visits (1-3-1). Marcelino Moreno added an insurance goal in the 97th minute, dancing around defender Kemar Lawrence before poking a shot past Alex Bono.

There was bad blood in the dying minutes with Toronto’s Brazilian fullback Auro and Atlanta’s Ezequiel Barco both sent off in the 84th minute for violent conduct after coming together. Auro seemed to accuse the Argentine of diving and it went downhill from there, with the two players jawing at each other forehead-to-forehead.

There was another clash as they left the field with other players rushing for a scrum at the tunnel. Referee Tim Ford reviewed the play at a sideline monitor before action resumed but did not change his ruling.

The delays led to nine minutes of extra time with Brad Guzan making a remarkable reflex save off a Omar Gonzalez header to preserve the Atlanta victory.

Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore entered the game in the 61st minute after lengthy injury absences. But the two designated players were unable to spark a comeback.

Atlanta (11-9-9) had lost two of its last three outings, including a 2-1 defeat in Montreal last time out. But prior to the Montreal defeat, it had lost just two-of -1 matches (8-2-1).

Toronto (6-16-7) came into weekend play in 13th place in the Eastern Conference some 15 points below the playoff line. With five games remaining, it can only collect 15 more points at best — while saddled with an anchor-like goal difference.

Toronto which entered the league in 2007, missed the playoffs its first eight seasons. Since then, it had qualified for the post-season five of six years before the current campaign — making the MLS Cup final three times (winning in 2017). It missed out in 2018

Eighth-place Atlanta arrived on the cusp of the playoffs — 14 points ahead of Toronto. The win moves it up the standings.

Atlanta went ahead in first-half stoppage time with Araujo beating Bono after a give-and-go from Barco and George Bello found the Brazilian in space in the Toronto penalty box. Araujo may have mis-hit the ball but it worked, with his rainbow shot going in over a lunging Bono. The former Lille striker celebrated his second MLS goal with a big smile.

The attack came after a turnover at midfield by Jacob Shaffelburg.

TFC had been unbeaten in five games in all competitions (4-0-1). It had lost six straight and gone winless in nine (0-7-2) prior to that run. Its hopes now are pinned on the Canadian Championship with a Nov. 3 semifinal against Pacific FC.

Toronto coach Javier Perez stuck with the same starting 11 that dispatched Chicago 3-1 last time out Oct. 3. That meant a start for winger Yeferson Soteldo despite a long trip back from international duty with Venezuela.

Centre back Chris Mavinga remained out through injury.

Altidore last played Aug. 7, missing the last 11 games in all competitions. He underwent surgery on his right ankle Aug. 19 in New York with the club saying at the time his recovery would take six weeks.

Sidelined by a lower-body injury that has dogged him all year, Pozuelo last saw action Aug. 27 in a 3-1 loss to Montreal. The Spanish playmaker, the league’s reigning MVP, has not played in the seven matches since in all competitions although he was an unused substitute for Toronto’s last game

Altidore and Pozuelo, whose salaries this year total US$8.25 million, had appeared in a combined 23 matches this season with three goals and four assists between them.

Lawrence had a fine game, partnering Gonzalez at the heart of the Toronto defence.

Atlanta was without star striker Josef Martínez, who has been suffering hamstring/knee soreness.

With both teams missing established forwards, it was attack by committee with players moving around up top.

Toronto had an early chance with Jonathan Osorio hitting the crossbar in the fourth minute on a feed from Ifunanyachi Achara, with Shaffelburg letting the ball run through on a dummy run.

Atlanta began to grow into the game. The visitors fired back-to-back-to-back shots from distance at Bono with the Toronto ‘keeper making the first two stops and the crossbar getting in the way of a third in the 27th minute, a Bello shot from the edge of the penalty box that deflected off a Toronto defender.

An injured Achara gave way to 17-year-old Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty in the 31st minute. Marshall-Rutty gave way in the 61st, with Perez outing an arm around him as he returned to the bench.

Atlanta threatened soon after the break. Moreno had a good chance but shot wide. Gonzalez then had to make a goal-line clearance to deny Araujo after a poor clearance by Bono. Moreno found the target in the 55th but his shot was parried by Bono.

Atlanta led the dance in the second half, looking faster and more resourceful than the home side. Altidore and Pozuelo nearly combined in the 76th with Altidore finding the Spaniard on the box. The reigning league MVP, contorting his body to get a shot, was unable to finish, however.

Atlanta came into the game with an all-time record of 2-4-3 against Toronto. Atlanta won 1-0 when they met at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Aug. 18. The teams meet again Oct. 30 in Atlanta.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press