Atlanta United looks to use Toronto loss as learning experience

Newcomers to lineup hope to build on lessons learned in the 2-0 loss in tough conditions
Atlanta United midfielder Nick Firmino #30 dribbles 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 midfielder Nick Firmino #30 dribbles 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 -- The ingredients sound like a watered-down soccer drink. Call it a Minus-Five Stripeatini.

Mix a bit of ice on the ball and field, a chilled stadium and a smattering of players who were unfamiliar with each other and the result was almost predictable: a 2-0 loss for Atlanta United at Toronto.

A common theme emerged from manager Gonzalo Pineda, captain Brad Guzan and midfielder Dax McCarty after the match, which dropped the Five Stripes to 2-2-0 this season (0-2-0 on the road with two shutouts). They each felt -- and it was surprising any of them could feel anything considering the temperature was below 30 degrees at kickoff with a wind blowing 13 mph -- the team was missing a bit of quality in certain situations.

Part of it could be explained by the team missing five starters - and seven players - overall. Six of the players were called up by their national teams. Another suffered an injury in last week’s win against Orlando.

The disjointedness resulted in Atlanta United creating eight chances, but five were from Brooks Lennon and most of those from corner kicks. No one else created more than one.

Atlanta United’s attack was very one-sided toward its right. It did create a few chances. Saba Lobjanidze missed a volley. Derrick Williams’ header was saved. Jamal Thiare, in for leading scorer Giorgos Giakoumakis, had a header saved.

“I’m proud of the guys, the young guys, especially who came into the game and they showed personality, they didn’t show any fear,” McCarty said. “And it’s easy in tough conditions against very high quality players to shrink in the moment. Now it’s just can we turn that positive energy into more quality, when it comes to how we play and create chances.”

Part of Atlanta United’s issues were it couldn’t consistently break Toronto’s pressure. It tried to play passes over the top. In the first half, the wind carry the ball either out of bounds or too far for Thiare to reach. In the second half, the wind would knock those passes down. When Atlanta United tried to play the ball on the ground, the ice would affect the passes.

Atlanta United could rarely get Toronto’s defenders turned back toward their goal. Because Atlanta United had trouble breaking that pressure with combination passes or runs into space, Toronto never had reason to back off.

“We were missing a bit of those quality moments that we normally have,” Pineda said. “So we need to do better on that. Some other moments we couldn’t get out of the pressure. And we have to do better at holding the ball and then come to support and play one-twos to get out of the zone of pressure.”

Combine those tactics by Toronto and lack of execution by Atlanta United in with players who haven’t started a game together and it made for static soccer. Thiare was making his first MLS start, as was Nic Firmino, in for Thiago Almada. Tyler Wolff was making his first start this season, as were McCarty, in for Bartosz Slisz, and centerback Noah Cobb, in for the injured Gregersen, and Ronald Hernandez, in for Caleb Wiley.

Guzan said the team needed to be more brave in some of those situations with more players making themselves available to receive passes or run into space.

“Going into the game, we knew there was going to be changes, we knew there was going to be the potential for a little bit of disjointedness,” Guzan said. “Different people bring different qualities to the team and to the field. And so you try to adapt as best you can to them, and then to be in in that moment. Trying to be on the same page. We need to be able to adapt in those situations and, and try and exploit the space that the opposition gives us.”

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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.