TORONTO – Sharing the pitch with the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley, on their home turf no less, it was Hector 'Tito' Villalba who stole the show on Saturday night with his brace.
Atlanta United are no strangers to the allure of star power themselves, but with Josef Martinez, the team's leading scorer, out with a quad strain, and the side held goal-less last weekend in Seattle, it fell to Villalba to shoulder the burden on an entertaining evening at BMO Field. He did, helping his side to a 2-2 draw against Toronto FC.
Toronto looked to make the most of their homefield advantage, mercilessly pressing Atlanta in their own half, but it was the visitors who took the lead in the 15th minute through Villalba.
“We talked to the players about going at Toronto's three-man back line,” said Atlanta United head coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino through a translator. “Tito was able to get into the space. He has that ability, to get in between the defenders.”
Miguel Almiron played the perfect through ball inside Chris Mavinga on the play, giving the speedy Villalba the opportunity to pounce before blasting a finish past Alex Bono in goal.
“The first goal really was on Miguel, he was able to find me with a good pass,” said the 22-year-old Villalba through a translator.
Toronto rebounded from that shock, scoring twice before halftime. Just two minutes after the restart, however, there was Villalba again.
He got in behind Toronto FC's defense once more to level the score, this time racing onto a long ball out of the back by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. The brace brings Villalba's season total to three goals in five matches.
“On the second goal, I was able to take advantage of my speed and convert the chance," said Villalba, who is a Designated Player.
Even when Toronto threw caution to the wind after Yamil Asad was sent off in the 75th minute, Atlanta were able to navigate the final passages of the game to take home a well-earned point. The result extended the expansion club's unbeaten run to four matches.
“It was a tough game,” said Villalba, “but we were able to match Toronto tonight.”
Taking points from each match in a two-game road trip that saw Atlanta visit both of last season's MLS Cup finalists – Toronto and the Seattle Sounders – pleased Atlanta boss Martino.
“Two good ties on the road against two of the best teams in the league," said Martino. "Tonight down a man, at a disadvantage. It was a good point.”
Still, Atlanta United believe they will have so much more to offer as the season continues and as they build more chemistry.
“Toronto is a really good team. Tonight we were able to play well,” said Villalba. “But remember, we've only been together for about 80 days, so day by day we're still getting to know each other and improving.”