MARIETTA, Ga. — The date is October 22, 2017 and Toronto FC, a team that needed just a point to claim sole record of the highest single-season point total in MLS history, are visiting Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a showdown with MLS’s new high-flying team, Atlanta United.
“That was one of those games where it was a really high quality game where both teams went for it,” recalled Atlanta's Julian Gressel Monday from the team’s training facility roughly two years later. “We played well, they played well. It's a great advertisement for MLS, games like that.”
While the play on the field was stellar — Toronto snatching the point they needed with a 2-2 draw thanks to a trademark Sebastian Giovinco free kick — the performance that was the most memorable that day came from the fans. Five Stripes supporters raucously and viciously booed Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, who’d played a role just days earlier in the US national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup with an infamous loss to Trinidad and Tobago.
Some fan or fans even brought a banner to the game and hung it over the railing with a graphic reading “The Biggest Losers,” with Altidore and Bradley’s faces prominently adorning the sign.
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“Yeah, I mean, the fans didn't like those guys, that's for sure,” said Gressel with a laugh.
With the two teams set to meet again for a match with some of the highest possible stakes in North America — a chance to play in the MLS Cup final — Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday (8 pm ET | FS1 in US; TSN1/4, TVAS in Canada) will surely present itself as similarly hostile territory for the visitors from north of the border.
“It's the most amazing atmosphere I've ever been a part of,” said Mikey Ambrose. The 26-year old left back said several days after making his first Atlanta United postseason appearance. “It's incredible to hear the fans... and it all just gives us extra energy to keep fighting and keep going. I think it's a huge advantage for us, the atmosphere that our fans create.”
When asked if he notices a difference in opponents when they come to play on Atlanta United’s home turf, Ambrose didn’t bat an eye.
“Oh yeah, for sure," he said. "You can tell they are a little bit hesitant. In awe about our stadium. It’s very unique.”
But if there’s a group of players in the league that can prevent any ill-effects due to crowd noise or belligerent booing, it’s a Toronto FC team that still has 12 players on the roster from its 2017 MLS Cup-winning team, including Bradley and Altidore. Altidore's status is uncertain as he recovers from an injury, but Bradley is one of the team’s two most important players, according to Atlanta United’s manager.
“We want to try to avoid that Bradley can contribute in the buildup, try to control the speed of the game, the tempo of the game,” said Frank de Boer on Monday. “For me two key players are of course Pozuelo and Bradley. The rest are also very good players, but they are the creative mind of the team. If we let them go, we’re going to have a hard time for sure.”