Toronto FC's MLS playoff hopes take a blow as Atlanta United wins 4-2

·6 min read

ATLANTA — Toronto FC's slim playoff hopes took a huge hit Saturday in a 4-2 loss to Atlanta United with Mexican defender Juan Jose Purata scoring an unlikely hat trick.

All three goals came off corners, with the cherry on the cake coming in the 88th minute as Purata doubled his Major League Soccer season output in one outing.

Thiago Almada scored in the 74th minute to give Atlanta a 3-2 lead after Toronto had twice pulled even. The Argentine designated player took advantage of the Toronto defence backing up -- and captain Michael Bradley over-running the play -- before unleashing a shot from the edge of the box that beat a diving Quentin Westberg.

Ayo Akinola and Federico Bernardeschi replied for Toronto.

Atlanta dominated a scoreless first half, denied the lead by Westberg's penalty save.

Purata put Atlanta ahead in the 47th minute, rising above Lukas McNaughton to head home a Brooks Lennon corner. The set piece was prompted by a fine Westberg save off Almada after a Mark-Anthony Kaye giveaway.

Akinola tied it in the 52nd minute, beating goalkeeper Raul Gudino with TFC's first shot on target. Bradley started the play with a surging run before finding substitute Jesus Jimenez, who slipped the ball over to Akinola for his second of the season.

Purata scored off another Lennon corner in the 62nd minute, beating Jimenez after two teammates headed the ball to one side and then the other before finding the Mexican defender.

Purata conceded a penalty, taking down Jimenez after Bernardeschi found the Spaniard just inside the penalty box. The call survived video review and Bernardeschi slotted the ball home in the 67th minute for his eighth goal, including five from the penalty spot, in 10 MLS outings.

Westerg made a terrific save in the 87th minute to deny Almada. Toronto forward Deandre Kerr hit the goalpost in stoppage time.

Coming into weekend play, 10th-place Toronto (9-15-7) was four places and five points out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. And time is running out with just three games remaining: away at Orlando and Philadelphia and at home to Inter Miami.

Atlanta (9-12-9) was one place and one point behind Toronto.

Toronto was without Italian star Lorenzo Insigne who missed training Thursday due to what the team termed a "personal family situation." The club did not elaborate but the matter was serious enough that fellow Italian Domenico Criscito skipped practice "to support Lorenzo and his family."

Insigne, who is married with two children, had a scare in early August as Toronto was preparing to return home from a 4-3 win in Nashville. News of a "family health situation" after the team boarded its charter prompted TFC to delay the flight so the Italian could get more information. The former Napoli captain subsequently pulled out of the MLS all-star skills competition in Minneapolis but returned to training later that week.

Going into weekend play, Bernardeschi (seven goals and three assists), Insigne (six goals and two assists) and Criscito (one goal) had been involved in 17 of Toronto’s last 20 goals in MLS action, including 11 of the last 12.

Atlanta was missing star striker Josef Martinez, suspended for one game after a reported locker-room altercation with coach Gonzalo Pineda after a 2-1 loss last weekend in Portland. Former TFC forward Dom Dwyer started up front for Atlanta.

It was largely one-way traffic for the home side in the first half. Atlanta had 11 shots (including three on target) before Toronto's first attempt.

Bernadeschi won a penalty for Toronto in the 34th minute after his shot hit Amar Sejdic's hand. The former Montreal midfielder had little choice in the matter, unable to get out of the way, and referee Rosendo Mendoza went to the pitchside monitor on the advice of Canadian VAR official Carol Anne Chenard.

Mendoza changed his mind on review, waving off the penalty.

Westberg, making his first start since July 13, stopped a Luiz Araujo penalty in the 12th minute, diving to his left to make the save. Shane O'Neill took down Lennon, prompting Mendoza to point to the penalty spot. The Atlanta attack started with a Jayden Nelson giveaway.

Westberg also saved a penalty -- from Martinez -- at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the 2019 Eastern Conference final, won 2-1 by Toronto. That marked TFC's only previous success in Atlanta. Toronto had lost its previous five regular-season games (0-3-2).

Kaye, who saw 45 minutes off the bench last time out after a seven-game injury absence, started in the TFC midfield. MacNaughton replaced the injured Chris Mavinga.

Westberg was making his seventh league start of the season compared to 24 for Alex Bono, who had been under the gun of late. Coach Bob Bradley had hinted at the chance in goal when asked after last weekend's 4-3 loss to visiting CF Montreal if his team had been getting the kind of goalkeeping it needs. His pithy response was "Not in this last stretch.'

Araujo tested Westberg with a long shot in the second minute after outpacing a defender. Six minutes later Atlanta fullback Andrew Gutman sliced into the box, danced around two TFC players and, after a give-and-go with Dwyer, skied his shot.

O'Neill blocked an Araujo shot in the 25th minute in front of goal as Atlanta turned the screw. And Westberg had to be sharp to parry a hard shot from the Brazillian winger in the 33rd minute.

Jimenez and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty replaced Noble Okello and Criscito to start the second half for Toronto. Jimenez had a chance to tie it up for Toronto right after the Atlanta goal but he deflected Richie Laryea's cross wide of the post.

Atlanta appealed unsuccessfully for a penalty in the 60th minute after Laryea bodied Almada to the ground in the box.

Toronto, which was also missing midfielder Jonathan Osorio, was coming off two disappointing home results: the 4--3 loss to CF Montreal and 2-2 tie with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

TFC led 2-0 after just seven minutes last weekend, only to concede four straight Montreal goals. And Toronto squandered a 2-1 lead in the game before that, settling for a tie with the Galaxy after conceding an 89th-minute goal.

Toronto had lost just one of seven games (4-1-2) before the Galaxy and Montreal matches, a run that coincided with the arrival of Bernardeschi and Insigne.

Atlanta had won just two of its last 10 league outings (2-4-4) and was coming off back-to-back road losses in Philadelphia (4-1) and Portland. It had not lost three straight since October 2020, a run that include a defeat at TFC's hands.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2022

The Canadian Press