MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

MLS big spenders: Atlanta United & Toronto FC have key questions to answer

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The two teams most deeply entangled in the Matchday 1 chaos were Atlanta United and Toronto FC. One was heartbroken, while the other celebrated the most improbable of stoppage-time turnarounds.

Atlanta United star Thiago Almada stepped up with two stoppage-time golazos to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win over San Jose Earthquakes before Mercedes-Benz Stadium's raucous crowd. Toronto went into stoppage time with a 2-1 lead over D.C. United at Audi Field, but that dissipated into a 3-2 loss when the final whistle was blown.

The Eastern Conference clubs are also connected in terms of their big-spending habits, star power and lingering questions for 2023. Matchday 1 reinforced those queries neatly and also underlined why Atlanta and Toronto will be two of the most watchable teams in the league… for better or worse.

Toronto travel to the dirty south to face Atlanta on Saturday, among the marquee games for Matchday 2 (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). It’s a chance to build positive momentum, both by points gained and improved performances.

In attack and defense, both sides have some real concerns to work through in the early stage of the season.

Can their high-priced attacks come good?

Adding injury to insult last weekend, Toronto FC superstar Lorenzo Insigne was substituted out with a muscle issue. The Italian winger hasn’t trained yet this week and there's yet to be an official update as to a diagnosis and timetable to return.

It’s such a luxury that TFC’s attack can be without the highest-paid player in the league and yet still have an elite, Best XI-caliber player still around to carry the group. Federico Bernardeschi is great and can run an attack on his own.

As for a talismanic, alpha talent? They can get by, even if not at their absolute apex without Insigne, of course. The knock-on effect for someone new to step into the lineup and increased reliance on secondary and tertiary attacking outlets is the question.

Who plays left wing? Will Ayo Akinola come into the starting XI as a wide-forward type? That could play out well, with Bernardeschi tucking in and running the show and Akinola on the other flank playing more vertical, but the latter's young career has been marred by injuries. Jonathan Osorio has thrived in the past as an ultra-smart off-ball attacker that finds space left around stars. Can he still do that freely given the mobility and ball-winning concerns in the midfield? (More on that in a minute).

Such is Toronto’s roster state that losing a star like Insigne is somehow the least pressing of their concerns, since Bernardeschi can do what Almada did for Atlanta last week in dragging the club to points with individual excellence.

Almada was the star of Matchday 1 thanks to his stoppage-time brace. The issue for Atlanta was more about consistently creating higher-quality chances rather than leaving it to the Argentine World Cup winner (or someone else) to bail them out.

Atlanta took 20 shots on Saturday, a staggering 16 of which came from outside the 18-yard box, easily the most in the league. It was easily the worst ratio of shots inside the box vs. outside as well.

New Atlanta DP forward Giorgos Giakoumakis is likely to debut this weekend after missing Matchday 1 with paperwork delays. He and fellow key attacking addition Derrick Etienne Jr. should be tremendous fits because they impact the game with low on-ball usage. Almada and Luiz Araújo are both high-usage players. Etienne (or Caleb Wiley, who started last weekend) will balance Araújo’s tendency to pinch in by running vertically.

It sounds simple – because it kind of is – but finding talented players who complement each other isn’t always easy. There’s legitimate reason to believe Atlanta found the correct concoction this year, though.

Giakoumakis is a goal-scorer who comes alive in the final third. In his career-best season in 2020-21 with VVV-Venlo, scoring 26 goals in 27 games, he was in the bottom 50th percentile among forwards (per 90 mins) in stats like passing, progressive carries and touches outside the penalty area (per FBRef). This will help give Almada and Araújo more space between the lines.

Oh, by the way, he was in the 99th percentile in fouls drawn that year. That should align nicely with Almada’s set-piece ability.

All told, both attacks will be fine and put up numbers. Well, a lot better than fine, if these kinks get ironed out. Even if they don’t, there’s too much talent for there to not be goals. Defense, ball-winning and injury-luck? Those are the chief concerns for both sides.

Is the defense good enough? What about injuries?

Matchday 1 played out in a pretty grim way for Toronto, with the biggest knocks on the team in preseason coming to fruition: Injury worries + depth concerns, as well as defensive frailties.

D.C. United, who finished bottom of the league last year, exploited those frailties. On their first goal, marquee offseason signing Mateusz Klich galloped 40 yards without any pressure before firing from distance to beat goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Transition moments are where opposition teams will try to take advantage of Toronto, when one (or both of) Mark-Anthony Kaye and Osorio push high up the pitch and leave Michael Bradley to cover too much space.

The club did trade for Brandon Servania from FC Dallas last week. He should help with mobility in the midfield when he plays.

It wasn’t all that different for Atlanta, though they limited the damage to just one goal allowed instead of three. Here’s San Jose’s goal. A lack of pressure and committed marking led to a Jeremy Ebobisse tap-in.

When they’re both back, Atlanta need Santiago Sosa to take a step forward on that side of the ball and/or for Ozzie Alonso to be available for most big games. Alonso, now 37, missed most of 2022 with a torn ACL.

On the injury front, neither team is all that deep. Toronto had the oldest starting XI in the league on Matchday 1 with an average age of 30.7. They’ll need as many of their starters to start 28+ games as possible, or for more players on the bottom of the depth chart to emerge.

Atlanta suffered a ton of injuries last year. The law of averages suggests it can’t possibly be that bad again… right?

The best-case scenario for both of these clubs is extremely high given their talent and pedigree. The floors are pretty low too, if things fall apart.

Toronto FC and Atlanta will be among the most fun teams to watch in 2023 given the combination of talent, attacking intent and defensive concerns. There should be goals aplenty.

(Did I just jinx Saturday to be a cautious, 0-0 draw?)