Toronto FC can't stop getting points. Their latest feat: a late-game winner from Pablo Piatti to lift them to a 1-0 win over Atlanta United in East Hartford, Conn. on Sunday night.
And it was a well-created goal from Richie Laryea, one of Greg Vanney's halftime changes on the evening. His cross from the right side of the box found the head of Piatti, with the ball beating an outstretched Brad Guzan to the far post to make sure the Reds would make it nine unbeaten in a row. It was the 2nd assist in the last 3 matches for the Toronto native and Canadian international.
"At times he's able to help us unbalance in combination play, but when we're able to get him isolated 1-on-1, it's so difficult for fullbacks and wingers that are having to defend him in those situations because he's so good," said Vanney. "He's just so quick on his first step.
"You see a similar version of it in Alphonso Davies, who is kind of that wide player or winger. When those guys get added into the attack as an extra number facing forward, a lot of times they're able to face up, and if you have a fullback who can beat people on the dribble, it's like gold."
But where does the 25-year-old, who was drafted by Orlando City in 2016 out of Akron but signed with his hometown club in 2019, stack up among players at his position in MLS?
"In terms of young outside backs in this league, it's hard to think that you're putting anybody ahead of him," Michael Bradley said. "I have seen firsthand the way that he has taken an opportunity to come back to Toronto and just work every single day—work to try to improve, work to try to show Greg and the coaches that he can be a guy who can be trusted in big moments as an outside back.
"He's such a great teammate, he's such a great player. He's such an important guy in our team because of his ability to connect with so many different groups of guys. He comes with a smile every single day, but he comes with an edge to how he plays, to how he trains."
Highlights: Toronto FC 1, Atlanta United 0
HIGHLIGHTS: Toronto FC vs. Atlanta United FC | October 18, 2020
Laryea is only a piece of the puzzle for the stretch run for Toronto, who remain atop of the Eastern Conference table with 41 points. Another big piece was the return of Bradley, who took over for an injured Jonathan Osorio in the 20th minute. Vanney said that Osorio sustained a "contusion" around his hip during the game against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday, with his ability to sprint on Sunday being negatively affected as a result.
According to Vanney, Osorio's exit was just "a precaution," but Bradley's 70-minute appearance—the original plan being to bring him in at halftime to prepare for a full-90 minute performance at the Philadelphia Union on Saturday—bodes well for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.
"He's a machine fitness-wise," Vanney said about Bradley. "He was ready to play 90 tonight. He was all for it, so I knew I didn't have to convince him of anything. He was ready to go, and we knew it wasn't an issue of injury and health and all that. It was just about getting his match fitness."
"I worked hard for the last six weeks not only to put the injury part behind me, but also to make sure that I was doing everything possible and doing all the things that I usually do in terms of my routine to stay strong, to stay fit, to stay sharp, everything," Bradley said. "You hope that it all comes together in a way that the healing that needs to take place, when all of that sorts itself out, that you're ready to go. That's all you can do, especially in a period like this where now every day counts. Every game counts. I pushed as hard as I could. I have a great team of people around me who always help me in big ways in these moments."
With four matches remaining in the regular season, including an away date at Philadelphia on Saturday, Vanney's hope is that the club, despite missing players like Ayo Akinola on the night and Jozy Altidore on a more long-term basis, can maintain its focus as the final push for playoff positioning continues. But first, they'll head to Toronto for two days before returning to their temporary home of Connecticut.
"I have a ton of confidence in this group," Vanney said. "They're having fun. They believe in themselves. They believe in each other. They're putting in the work, which is first and foremost the most important thing, but the mentality of the group is strong.
"Once the culture like that is inside of the group, it takes a lot to disrupt it, but it's strong inside of our group."