Atlanta United: We'll need to dictate the game against Toronto FC to book MLS Cup spot

Darlington Nagbe – Nick DeLeon – coming together

ATLANTA – To reach their second Eastern Conference Final in as many years, Atlanta United have marched past relative underdogs in the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution.

But now a different kind of challenge awaits against Toronto FC on Oct. 30 (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada) in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. It'll pit the 2018 MLS Cup champions (Atlanta) against the 2017 ones (Toronto).

“They’re dangerous all over,” said midfielder Jeff Larentowicz after his team’s 2-0 win over the Union in the Eastern Conference Semifinal. “I think the one thing that they have is in every position on the field they’ve got experience, it’s kind of a calmness. You can look at every single guy in that 11 and say, ‘Yeah, he knows what he’s doing.’ And that’s tough. Every single time since 2017 we’ve played them it’s been a difficult game, and I expect nothing different on Wednesday.”

Head coach Frank de Boer was already thinking about how next Wednesday’s game will play out against a team with the same kind of playoff know-how that his own team possesses. The club split the regular-season series, as they each won at home, with Atlanta 2-0 victors May 8 and Toronto 3-2 winners June 26.

“Toronto has some quality players,” said De Boer. “They can play different systems. Playing with [Alejandro] Pozuelo as a false striker, we have to do better than what we did [at Toronto]. They controlled the first half, and we could have been down a couple of goals. They have experience in midfield with Michael Bradley. He’s a little bit like Haris Medunjanin. You don’t want him to build up and dictate the rhythm of the game.”

Were it not for Toronto’s 2-1 win over No. 1 seed New York City FC, Atlanta wouldn’t even be hosting this game. Players in the Atlanta locker room weren’t shy about admitting that playing another match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was a motivator against Philadelphia.

“I was pretty excited yesterday when I watched the game,” said Julian Gressel, who scored on a delicately-chipped shot that proved to be the game-winner. “Obviously, we want to play at home and Toronto FC went to New York and then won the game. That’s a very tough environment for them to go and do that. I’m sure they’ll make it hard on us on Wednesday, but, yeah, it was obviously a little bit of extra motivation.”

However, there’s at least one player who did not watch and did not care about the result of the other semifinal: Josef Martinez.

“There’s only one option: to win,” said Martinez through a translator. “[Toronto] played very well. That’s what I was told. But in the end, everyone wants to win. They have a team with many experienced and talented players, but we have to think of ourselves and playing the final at home."