Atlanta United began its six-game drive toward the playoffs with a 2-0 win against Toronto at BMO Field on Saturday.
Luiz Araujo scored the winning goal, which moved the Five Stripes from eighth to fifth in the East. The top seven teams at season’s end will advance to the playoffs. Marcelino Moreno added another goal just before game’s end. Atlanta United will host NYCFC on Wednesday in what is arguably the toughest of its five remaining games.
The shutout, which included a massive save in the final minutes, was goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s ninth this season.
“We had six games left in the season, winning this one away was a very, very good statement from the team to say ‘hey, we really want to be in playoffs,’ and I needed this trend for the next three games at home, I needed this confidence,” manager Gonzalo Pineda. “It was a massive, massive victory.”
Pineda, without leading scorer Josef Martinez, went again with the “false nine” formation that featured Ezequiel Barco and Araujo as hybrid strikers and Moreno as the conductor. The backline consisted of Miles Robinson, Alan Franco and Anton Walkes, with Brooks Lennon and George Bello as the wingbacks and Santiago Sosa and Matheus Rossetto as the central midfielders.
Despite playing a defense that was tied for the worst in MLS with 54 goals allowed, Atlanta United didn’t put its first shot on goal until 25 minutes, when Barco’s 30-yard free kick was saved. That effort was followed by another from Sosa from almost the same spot on the field. It also was saved.
Though it didn’t offer much going forward, Atlanta United began to apply pressure and took a 1-0 lead in the second minute of added time in the first half on a goal by Araujo that was assisted by Bello. He played a cross into the box that Araujo appeared to scuff. But the ball took a high bounce to loop over Alex Bono’s head. It was Araujo’s second goal and Bello’s third assist. Barco also was given an assist, his seventh.
Araujo admitted that he was lucky on the shot but pointed out he’s hit a few shots much better and not gotten the same result.
“I’m very happy that this one went in,” he said.
Atlanta United spent time in the past two weeks working on managing different game situations, including holding a lead.
It continue to hold its lead, and missed several chances to increase its advantage, in the first five minutes of the half. Araujo and then Moreno wasted scoring chances. Moreno forced a save a few minutes later as Atlanta United shot’s on goal total increased to four, compared with Toronto’s one.
Toronto brought on U.S. international Jozy Altidore in the 61st minute to try to find an equalizer.
Instead, Altidore created drama.
Following a dead ball that stopped Atlanta United’s momentum, Altidore, instead of kicking it back to the Five Stripes, which is the custom, instead began to dribble it toward goal.
That set off a minutes-long scuffle that led to Toronto’s Auro and Barco receiving red cards from referee Timothy Ford in the 84th minute. Before the play, the two players could be seen arguing and going head-to-head for several seconds. Barco also was given a red card, which means he will miss the next game.
“I don’t know if that is a red card,” said Pineda, who said he thought the game at times was out of control.
Guzan kept the 1-0 lead with a reflex save of a header by Omar Gonzalez in the fourth minute of added time.
Moreno ended with a right-footed shot in the 97th minute. It was his eighth goal this season.
“A massive save to show at the right moment why he’s a captain, why he’s the leader of the team, and he just kept us in the game,” Pineda said.
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