Atlanta United will host Toronto on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Atlanta United leads MLS in points (47) and is trying to keep pace with Dallas (42) and stay ahead of NYCFC (43) and New York Red Bulls (41) in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.
Toronto, the defending MLS champs, are in 10th place in the East with 22 points, but trail sixth-place New England by six points in the chase for the final playoff spot.
Oliver Platt, who covers Toronto FC for The TFC Report and Pro Soccer USA, answered four questions about Saturday’s game. Platt can be found on Twitter here.
Q: What has gone wrong for Toronto during the MLS season, and how is it improving?
A: It's impossible to look past Toronto's extensive injury list in diagnosing what has gone wrong this season. Greg Vanney has designed the way this team plays around its glittering cast of stars, and when those stars aren't available there are things that just don't work as intended. Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga, Justin Morrow, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez — all of whom would have a shot at an All-Star nod in full, healthy seasons — have spent significant periods of time in the medical room.
The situation is improving because the team is getting healthy — Moor is the only player who will not be ready to play in Atlanta. Mavinga has made a huge difference at the back, and Sebastian Giovinco has been rejuvenated by the return of Altidore alongside him.
Q: Atlanta United supporters may laugh at this question because they know that I’m not the biggest appreciator of Michael Bradley. Sell me on his value to Toronto this season and his potential impact on Saturday’s game.
A: Bradley needs a solid structure around him — runners in midfield, playmakers to pass to and a communicative defensive unit. When he has those things, he can run games from his deep-lying midfield position like no one else in MLS. He can find teammates long and short, he breaks up play and he reads and contains counter-attacks very well. He's also been an incredible big-game performer for Toronto and was probably the best player on the field in each of the past two MLS Cup finals.
When that structure isn't there, Bradley struggles. He seems to lose faith in what is going on around him and starts overcompensating and making poor decisions. We've seen that when the likes of Moor, Mavinga and Vazquez have been injured, and it was apparent when he was given virtually no midfield support by Bruce Arena last year. I also wonder if his relentless, every-day intensity — which has been essential in turning around the previously rotten culture in Toronto — might rub people up the wrong way when results aren't good. But he has given everything he has to TFC and it's hard to argue there has been a more influential figure in the transformation of the club.
Q: What is the matchup to watch and how do you think it will go?
A: I was going to say Mavinga against Josef Martinez, but I think attempting to contain a striker of his quality is an exercise in futility. Toronto will have to cut off the supply instead, and that means controlling the midfield. I expect Vanney to stick with the 4-3-1-2 formation he switched to against Chicago and with Bradley, Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio and Vazquez all available, that's the one area of the field in which I think TFC still has the upper hand over Atlanta. That will need to be apparent if the Reds are going to get anything from this game.
Q: Will Toronto make the playoffs this season?
A: Toronto hasn't looked like a playoff team for most of the year. But we know from the wider context of the past couple of seasons, as well as the CONCACAF Champions League run, that closing a six-point gap is far from beyond this side when its best players are available. It will, again, come back to health: if Vanney can keep something close to his best 11 on the field for the final 13 games, I think they'll squeak in. If he can't, they won't.
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