How did Toronto upset Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium?
Greg Vanney summed it up after the game: "Today was resiliency...it was hard. These guys refused to give up."
Michael Bradley echoed those sentiments: "The mentality, the commitment, the sheer determination of every guy tonight even when things didn't come easy, that part was special."
All of those words are both basic, but also exceptional in this moment. Toronto have always had the talent to challenge in the East. Their level of investment still places them in the upper tier of clubs; they still have multiple megastars; they still have the coach that set up one of the most detailed, flexible systems in the league. On paper, they should have been at the top all along. The only problem, including until as recently as early fall — and I've said this multiple times recently but it's worth noting again — was their ability to tap into the fumes when they hit empty in the tank. After three years of ups and downs, it felt like the team didn't have any resilience left in them. How many times have we seen it in sports? They looked out of gas.
In Wednesday night's game, though, it wasn't the talent or the coaching that separated them — they took the field without Jozy Altidore or Omar Gonzalez for the third straight match — it was their desire. They used a couple of tactical adjustments (that we will cover) but they were small details in the larger picture; ripples within waves. The game was mostly ugly. Neither team looked sharp. Toronto simply worked their butts off, won their tackles and made a couple of big plays. It was more heart than science.
For the tactical part, Toronto had to ask themselves the same question that Seattle did on Tuesday night: We can't match up directly with the team across from us, so how are we going to find our advantage?
To do so, Toronto threw another funky defensive scheme, their second this week, at Atlanta.
Vanney had his group defend in a 4-1-4-1 mid-block. The key facet was Bradley in a roaming, fill-in-the-gaps role from the "1" between the defenders and midfielders. All four TFC defenders stayed tight to their opposing players. When Ezequiel Barco moved central from the left, for example, Auro Jr. followed him. It was then up to the other three defenders and Bradley to read the moment and fill the holes. It was an unorthodox approach. At times, it looked downright sloppy and unorganized. The main function, it seemed, was to make Atlanta uncomfortable.
Early in the game, it looked disastrous. Atlanta's first goal came from both TFC center backs getting dragged away and Bradley shifting into a central-defender position to track Pity Martinez; Bradley mistimed his action and Martinez ran through on the breakaway.
Four minutes later, Atlanta took advantage of the same confusion. Chris Mavinga tracked a run into the midfield and Bradley didn't read Pity's run behind the defense; Pity got taken down for a penalty (although it was a dubious call).
That's when the game changed. Quentin Westberg saved Josef's PK and three minutes later Toronto equalized. Within the time someone takes to go to the bathroom, the game went from "call your momma it's over" to "go put the popcorn on."
Laurent Ciman stepped into the midfield — taking the space allotted because Atlanta prioritized cutting out passes into Bradley — played a perfect long diagonal to Nicolas Benezet, who scored a gorgeous curler to the back post. Toronto no longer had to chase the game; they could stick to their plan and trust their guts.
From there, it's tough to use the usual words that we would for a big win like this. Toronto weren't in control, or comfortable or dominant. They also didn't get lucky. They did some things well, they frustrated the home team, they made a couple of huge plays and found a couple of goals. It was entirely unspectacular.
The evolution of Toronto FC in the last couple of years, in itself, has been the spectacular part. They made it to MLS Cup in 2016 and 2017 in style. In 2018 and early 2019, they turned into the team that you yell at through the TV for making stupid mistakes. Now through the end of 2019, they've turned into the masters of simplicity.
They're more rugged than sexy, more "do your job" than "cooking in the laboratory." The players you wouldn't expect to step up on this stage had giant moments; the giant players played like hungry, humble newcomers.