Atlanta United’s season, and hope of winning back-to-back MLS Cups, is over. 

Toronto’s Nicolas Benezet and Nick DeLeon scored from long distance to overcome an early opener by Julian Gressel to knock off the Five Stripes 2-1 on Wednesday in the Eastern Conference finals of the MLS playoffs. Atlanta United’s season ends with two trophies, the Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup, but not the one the players wanted more.

With LAFC losing and being outsmarted and out toughed by Seattle on Tuesday, an Atlanta United victory on Wednesday meant that it would host the MLS Cup on Nov. 10 for the second consecutive year. Instead, after a spirited five minutes, Atlanta United had trouble against a disciplined Toronto defense for the rest of the game with the low-light being a missed penalty kick by Josef Martinez, who was playing with an injured hamstring, in the 11th minute. 

» MARK BRADLEY: Atlanta United dominates, yet loses

“I can not blame the guys,” manager Frank de Boer said. “We controlled 95 percent of the game. If you can do that against a side like Toronto.”

It was Atlanta United’s first loss at home in nine games in an elimination setting this season.

Atlanta United outshot Toronto 18-4, but put just five on target to Toronto’s four. Atlanta United won more duels, 44-33, and created more chances, 13-4.

“Sometimes the better team doesn’t win,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We played a good game and we are disappointed. They scored two goals from outside the box. It’s good finishing on their part. We weren’t clinical enough. Combine those things and you go home for the season.”

De Boer made one change to the starting 11 from the team that last week defeated Philadelphia. Parkhurst, who suffered a shoulder injury in the first-round win against New England, came in at centerback with Flo Pogba moving to left fullback in place of Mikey Ambrose. The rest of the lineup: goalkeeper Brad Guzan, right fullback Franco Escobar, Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez at centerback, Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe as defensive midfielders, Pity Martinez as attacking midfielder, Gressel and Ezequiel Barco on the right and left with Josef Martinez as striker. 

It didn’t take long for Atlanta United to strike. 

Barco, feeling no pressure, split Toronto’s midfield and backline with a 20-yard pass down the left. Pity Martinez ran onto the ball, dribbled for a few yards and then played it across to Gressel to tap into goal in the fourth minute. It was also Gressel who gave Atlanta United an early lead against Philadelphia in the semifinal. 

Atlanta United missed a chance to increase its lead to 2-0 when a penalty kick by Josef Martinez was saved by Toronto’s Quentin Westberg in the 11th minute. The penalty kick was hit low and to Westberg’s right. The penalty kick was awarded after Michael Bradley knocked down Pity Martinez, who was chasing a long pass from Larentowicz. 

Parkhurst said he thinks Bradley should have received a red card for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity. Instead, Bradley received a yellow.

“When it’s 2-0 they have to come more, and they made quickly the equalizer,” de Boer said.

Toronto took advantage four minutes later when Nicolas Benezet curled a shot from the left around Gressel and Escboar into the lower right corner of Guzan’s goal to tie the game at 1. Benezet’s goal was just the second scored in a playoff game against Atlanta United at home in its history and the first conceded in 418 minutes. De Boer implied that Benezet, who is right-footed, should have been made to go left instead of being allowed to go back to his right.

The play started with a long pass from centerback Laurent Ciman, who wasn’t being pressured. De Boer said the players knew that Ciman liked to hit long passes. 

“We had enough time to recover, but we didn’t react well to the long ball,” de Boer said. “We can do better in those cases.”

Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel reacts to falling 2-1 to Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday, October 30, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Josef Martinez, who started the game with a wrap on his right thigh, took it off and threw it to the sideline in the 30th minute. He didn’t appear to be moving well with the wrap on, twice stumbling while trying to control the ball. 

Atlanta United continued to have trouble breaking down Toronto’s disciplined defense, which played two blocks of four. 

Josef Martinez was given another chance, albeit from a tight angle, near the 57th minute but his shot hit the side netting. He again reached for the back of his right leg, though. It was the second time he did so in the game. 

Gressel created an opportunity in the 75th minute with a run down the middle, but eventually lost control of his dribble. The play started with Josef Martinez winning a duel with Chris Mavinga near midfield. 

Toronto made Atlanta United pay in the 77th minute when DeLeon struck from 22 yards. DeLeon dribbled around Escobar and Gressel back toward the center. No one continued to apply pressure after he turned back toward the center, so he took a chance and found the upper left corner. 

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan (1) is not able to stop the game winning goal by Toronto FC midfielder Nick DeLeon (18) in the second half during the Eastern Conference Final soccer match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday, October 30, 2019. Toronto FC won 2-1 over the Atlanta United. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“Everybody thinks someone else is going to stay with the ball and we pick up runners,” Parkhurst said. “For half a second we set him free and he takes a great shot. We should have had more pressure on the ball there.”

Atlanta United’s players argued with referee Alan Kelly that play should have been stopped because Nagbe was down with an injury on the other end of the field. De Boer said maybe an Atlanta United player could have made a smart foul to stop play.

“It’s a great goal,” de Boer said. “It’s very harsh. I had a feeling a little bit the same against Dallas when we were losing 2-0. I couldn’t put a finger on what we were doing wrong.”

A minute later, Josef Martinez missed another chance, this time from 7 yards. 

De Boer put in Hector Villalba for Parkhurst in the 81st minute in an attempt to find the equalizer.

Atlanta United threw players forward. A scramble in front of Toronto’s box in the 86th minute was cleared. A header by Gonzalez Pirez went over the crossbar in the 87th minute.

Gonzalez Pirez again missed in the first of five minutes of stoppage time.

“I spoke to the manager, who said they didn’t deserve it,” de Boer said. “But they are in the final and we are not. That’s harsh. But that’s the sport and makes the beauty of sport. 

“We had a great season. We didn’t want it to end like this. We can look back very proud of what we achieved.”

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