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

Toronto FC was officially eliminated from MLS playoff contention in an ill-tempered 2-0 loss to Atlanta United on Saturday night. The dying minutes of regulation time saw two red cards and a melee with players and staff at the tunnel.

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

The dying minutes of regulation time saw two red cards and a melee with players and staff at the tunnel. That was followed by nine minutes of wild stoppage time that featured a game-saving stop from Atlanta's Brad Guzan and a 97th-minute insurance goal from Marcelino Moreno.

When the dust settled, Atlanta (11-9-9) had three points to vault it above the playoff line to fifth from eighth in the Eastern Conference.

"A massive, massive victory," said Atlanta coach Gonzalo Pineda.

Toronto (6-16-7), languishing in 13th pace in the East, is 16 points below the playoff line with only 15 points left on the table.

The messy ending seemed somehow fitting for a nightmarish Toronto season that saw the team take one step forward only to consistently fall back. It was a year spent in quicksand.

While Toronto has five games remaining, it is playing for pride — with a focus on the Nov. 3 Canadian Championship semifinal with Pacific FC.

"It's not a team that gives up easily. I'm proud (of) the way we went down," said coach Javier Perez, who took over the side after first-year coach Chris Armas was fired July 4 after a 1-8-2 start to the season. "I think it's been an extremely difficult season for us. Many of the games did not go our way. I think it will make us stronger.."

Goalkeeper Alex Bono says the fight will continue.

"We've got (five) league matches left to go out there and show everyone that we're not going to accept our place in the standings, we're not going to accept the product we put out this entire season. And we're going to try and keep getting better, try and keep showing these fans that we're hungry, that this is not a place that this club wants to be.

"Our ambition is to try and finish on a high note, show the people that we're hungry, that we're going to come back next year with a vengeance, energized and ready to go and put this club back where it belongs — at the top."

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). Moreno rubbed salt in the wound late, dancing around defender Kemar Lawrence before poking a shot past Bono.

"We didn't deserve to lose the game," said Perez, insisting the final score did not reflect his team's performance.

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.

The incident started when Barco went down, seemingly embellishing an Auro challenge. The ball was kicked out to allow the Argentine to get treatment and when play resumed, the ball was not returned to Atlanta as per the normal protocol. That set off the Atlanta players.

Meanwhile, Barco and Auro were jawing at each other forehead-to-forehead. Whatever Auro said, it got under Barco's skin. He had to be held back by teammates as the red mist took over.

There was another clash as they left the field with other players and staff 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 Toronto camp seemed to think the ejections were an over-reaction. Pineda agreed, albeit diplomatically.

"I didn't see a straight red card for Barco or Auro, either. but maybe the referee saw it better ... From my perspective it was not," he said.

The delays led to nine minutes of extra time with Guzan making a remarkable reflex save off a Omar Gonzalez header in the 94th minute to preserve the Atlanta victory.

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.

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 outshot Toronto 17-15 (9-4 in shots on target). Attendance was announced at 7,490, well below the 26,622 for Canada's mid-week World Cup qualifier against Panama.

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

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

Prior to Saturday, 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) before that run. 

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.

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

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, have appeared in a combined 25 matches this season with three goals and four assists between them. 

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

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 putting an arm around him as he returned to the bench.

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