Then: “If I look back, I would make the decision (to play him) again.”
Josef Martinez, a great player, had a bad night at a bad time. This happens with Atlanta teams. (Not just Atlanta teams, we stipulate, though often seems that way.) Atlanta United could never overcome the 2-0 lead that never was. Three minutes later, there was no lead at all.
Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez reacts as time expires and Toronto FC begins to celebrate their 2-1 victory in the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday, October 30, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Comptonfirstname.lastname@example.org
A long diagonal ball from defender Laurent Ciman found Nicolas Benezet down the left wing. Benezet ducked inside and curled a shot around the diving Brad Guzan, who didn’t react until it was too late. One-all.
Said de Boer: “It was really the first time they tried to attack us.”
The tie stood from the 14th minute until the 78th, a span over which Toronto managed two shots on target. It was one-way traffic all night, Atlanta United having 59.5 percent of possession and outshooting the visitors 18-4.
Said Toronto coach Greg Vanney: “We probably didn’t win very many categories except for one – 2-1 (the final score). From a soccer perspective, they were a better team.”
An Atlanta team played better in a postseason game but lost. Where have we heard that before? Vanney again: “Sometimes in a one-off game on the road you’ve got to come up with ways.”
His team did. It stopped Atlanta United’s break by whatever means necessary. (Said Vanney: “You have to use all your resources. Sometimes a foul is a resource.”) Atlanta United will gripe forever that the winning goal came off an uncalled foul that divested midfielder Darlington Nagbe of the ball and led to a Toronto counterattack.
Said de Boer: “It was one minute of a lack of concentration. Darlington Nagbe was on the ground. We thought it was a foul.”
Toronto substitute Nick DeLeon took the ball outside the Atlanta United box. He pivoted. No defender pursued. DeLeon loosed a right-footed screamer that flew over Guzan into the top left corner. The visitors, content just to hang around, were bound for the final.
De Boer: “I spoke to (Vanney). He said, ‘We didn’t deserve it.’ They are in the final. That’s the beauty of sports. It’s part of life. We had a wonderful season.”
Vanney: “What I said to him was that basically we didn’t play well. ‘Deserve’ isn’t a word that’s fair to us. From an ideological standpoint, that wasn’t what I wanted to see. From a practical standpoint, it was what we needed. ... We managed situations. I wouldn’t say it was perfect. We kept ourselves in it.”
De Boer again: “We controlled 95 percent of the game of the game. ... I was really happy with our chances.”
Toronto FC defender Chris Mavinga blocks a shot by Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel with goalkeeper Quentin Westberg defending during the final minutes in the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday, October 30, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Comptonemail@example.com
For Atlanta United, repeating as champion was never going to be easy – though the way this tournament had fallen, a second title could have been less strenuous than the first. Last year’s playoffs required two road games. This time Atlanta United wouldn’t have had to board a plane. Toronto upset New York City FC, the East’s top seed, in the conference semis. Seattle upset LAFC, the overall No. 1 seed, in the West final. Everything had broken right for Atlanta United – until it didn’t.
But let’s not be too hard on this city’s best team. More than any sport, soccer is a game of fine margins. You take 14 more shots than the other guy, you should win. Sometimes, though, you don’t. Said de Boer: “What did Toronto (do) well? They defended well.”
To be fair, Toronto also put the ball in the net twice as many times as the home side. There’ll be no championship game staged under the famous roof on Nov. 10. Without Tata Martino, gone to coach Mexico, and Miguel Almiron, playing for Newcastle in the Premier League, Atlanta United had itself a very nice season. Like most Atlanta seasons, alas, it just won’t yield a league championship.