Atlanta United frozen out and shut out in Toronto

Atlanta United forward Tyler Wolff #28 kicks the ball during the first half of the match against Toronto FC at BMO Field in Toronto, Canada on Saturday March 23, 2024. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United)

Credit: Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United

Credit: Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United

Atlanta United forward Tyler Wolff #28 kicks the ball during the first half of the match against Toronto FC at BMO Field in Toronto, Canada on Saturday March 23, 2024. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta United)

TORONTO -- Playing soccer on a cold, windy night better suited for any indoor activity, Atlanta United, without numerous key starters, was beaten 2-0 at Toronto on Saturday.

Temperature at kickoff was below freezing and the winds were blowing as much as 13 mph. There was ice not only on the field, but sometimes on the ball. Snow would have made it seem like the Minnesota match of 2017. If there was a match for five starters to miss because of a FIFA-mandated window and MLS insistence on playing through it, this one wasn’t a poor choice.

Atlanta United (2-2-0) tried to stay in the game for as long as it could. A goal from Tyrese Spicer just before the end of the first half and another by Prince Owusu in the second half were enough to drop Atlanta United to 0-2 on the road this season with two shutouts. Missing its two best scorers, Atlanta United put just three shots on goal compared to Toronto’s 10.

“We were lacking a little bit of quality but they are, for me, excuses,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “The conditions, the weather, of course it was difficult to move the ball times. (It) was frozen, but yeah, it was for both teams, so yeah, no excuse.”

With the starters out, four because they were called up by their national teams, Pineda had several decisions to make. He went with Jamal Thiare in place of leading-scorer Giorgos Giakoumakis, Nic Firmino in place of Thiago Almada, Dax McCarty in place of Bartosz Slisz, Noah Cobb in place of the injured Stian Gregersen and Ronald Hernandez in place of Caleb Wiley. Pineda made one more change with Tyler Wolff replacing Xande Silva on the left wing. The rest of the lineup included right Saba Lobjanidze, central midfielder Tristan Muyumba, right fullback Brooks Lennon, centerback Derrick Williams and goalkeeper Brad Guzan. It was the first starts for Thiare and Firmino, who played well together during the preseason. It was just the 11th time that Atlanta United played without any of its three Designated Players in the starting lineup. It was 2-4-4 in those matches.

Pineda said he selected the new starters for this game because they deserved the opportunities.

“I believe in them, regardless of the score,” he said.

With a cold, gusting wind consistently blowing toward Lake Ontario and keeping the 15 flags at the end of the stadium at attention, neither team could generate clear scoring opportunities.

The intensity of Toronto’s press, particularly on Atlanta United’s goal kicks, was surprising, McCarty said. When Atlanta United tried to play passes over the top of Toronto’s lines, the wind would blow the ball out of bounds or too deep for Thiare to catch up to. The opposite happened in the second half. Long passes would turn into 25-yard passes because the wind would knock the ball down. And trying to play passes along the ground was also problematic because of the accumulated ice. Toronto watered the field before the match.

“Their big center backs did a great job of just attacking every single ball and winning most of those duels,” McCarty said. “And it was difficult for us to get out and establish a rhythm in their half of the field in the second half.”

When Atlanta United was able to break Toronto’s pressure, the team lacked a change of pace and the home team made the right pass to punish them, Pineda said.

Toronto took a 1-0 lead in the 35th minute on a goal by Spicer, his first. The sequence started with Lorenzo Insigne beating Lobjanidze and then trying to play a 1-2 pass to Deandre Kerr near the top of the 18-yard box. The pass drew Cobb up the field toward Kerr, who instead of passing it to Insigne, sent the ball to Spicer, who moved into the space Cobb vacated. It appeared that Cobb was going to toe-poke the ball but pulled back because it was in the box. Spicer quickly took a successful shot back toward the near post.

“There were a few things there tactically, but it comes to winning some of those duels,” Pineda said.

McCarty cold be seen giving Cobb a slap on the back to encourage not only him but the rest of the team.

“I thought all of us could have been a little bit better probably in certain moments, in key moments in the game,” McCarty said. “And I want to give Toronto credit because they were up for it. They certainly were extremely aggressive in areas of the field where they were winning some tackles and duels higher up the field in our half. That’s what allowed them to kind of build some pressure and we just weren’t quite able to to build enough of a rhythm with the ball to disrupt their high pressure.”

Atlanta United tried to answer a few minutes later with a header from Williams but it was saved by Toronto’s Luka Gavran. It was the second time in as many games that Williams was able to free himself to reach a free kick.

Guzan made a point-blank save of a header from Kerr in the 42nd minute to keep the score 1-0.

Toronto’s Insigne, its best attacking player, left the match just before halftime with an undisclosed injury to his right leg.

Atlanta United finished the first half with one shot on goal compared to Toronto’s four.

Thiare put another header on frame in the 50th minute. It was saved. Toronto, going with the wind, attacked but was foiled by a header from Cobb that saved a potential goal.

Pineda subbed on Silva in place of Wolff in the 58th minute.

Toronto hit the post with a shot that flew across the mouth of the goal and out for a goal kick in the 70th minute. But the hosts got their second goal in the 71st minute when Owusu pounced on a shot that was saved by Guzan but not cleared by his teammates.

Edwin Mosquera and Daniel Rios, signed on loan earlier this week, came on in the 75th minute in place of Thiare and Firmino.

“We need to be better on the ball,” Guzan said. “We need to be brave. There were times when we weren’t good, when we weren’t helping each other. I wouldn’t say hiding, but not demanding the ball, how we would normally demand the ball, whether it’s conditions or the pitch or the winds? I don’t know. But we need to be brave.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

March 9 Atlanta United 4, New England 1

March 17 Atlanta United 2, Orlando 0

March 23 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 0

March 31 vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m., FOX

April 6 at NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

April 14 vs. Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m., FOX

April 20 vs. Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

April 27 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

May 4 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FOX

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

July 26 vs. D.C. United in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 4 vs. Santos Laguna in Leagues Cup, 4 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.