How Toronto FC can exploit Atlanta United in Eastern Conference final

Toronto FC GM Ali Curtis joins Lead Off to discuss their crucial Conference Finals match with Atlanta United, and whether it's time to start thinking of this franchise as a dynasty.

The 2019 MLS Eastern Conference final pits the previous two winners of MLS Cup against one another as Atlanta United welcomes Toronto FC to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday night.

This promises to be an intriguing match, mainly because both sides have some titillating tactical questions entering this game.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney is also waiting on the status of defender Omar Gonzalez and striker Jozy Altidore, who’ve yet to appear in a playoff match in 2019. That adds another wrinkle to an already complex game.

Here is an in-depth breakdown on the potential lineups and tactics.

How Toronto FC may look

This is, more or less, what TFC’s average shape looks like with everyone available.

Gonzalez (hamstring) participated in full training and Vanney feels confident about his progress. Altidore (quad) may only be fit enough for the bench, if he even makes the matchday squad.

With that in mind, Vanney will probably replace Gonzalez with Ciman and keep the same attacking trio intact from the win over New York City FC.

How Atlanta United may look

Like TFC, Atlanta United is dealing with two injury concerns.

Centre-backs Michael Parkhurst (shoulder) and Miles Robinson (hamstring) missed the Eastern Conference semifinals, but head coach Frank de Boer expects one of them to return before the end of the season.

De Boer switched to a 4-2-3-1 for the win over the Philadelphia Union on Oct. 24 due to the defensive injuries. If he sticks with that system, it will look something like this.

Containing Julian Gressel

Whether it’s a four-man defence or three at the back, Atlanta United should play fairly similarly.

That starts with Julian Gressel, one of the most underrated wide playmakers in MLS. He’s among the league leaders in key passes, through passes and deep completions. He also had 11 primary assists, only Maxi Moralez, Carles Gil (12) and Michael Barrios (13) had more.

As such, containing Gressel should be one of Vanney’s priorities.

Stats via Wyscout.

When these teams last met on June 26 in a 3-2 TFC win, Gressel was deployed in a free role up front. When he drifted to the right, the German tried to exploit left-back Justin Morrow, who was pushing very high up the pitch when Toronto had possession.

However, Morrow has been more reserved with his positioning in recent weeks when facing more dynamic teams, as the heat maps below will demonstrate. That means Gressel may have some resistance when he rushes into the final third.

Heat maps via Wyscout. Attacking direction from left to right.

Combating Martinez and Barco

As for Atlanta’s other attacking weapons, Ezequiel Barco and Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez – provided both are on the pitch – are going to exploit any open gaps in TFC’s midfield.

At 20 years old, Barco is one of the top young attacking players in MLS and the numbers back it up.

Ezequiel Barco’s 2019 statistical radar. (via Wyscout)

Barco’s best qualities are his change of pace, dribbling and vision. He’s brilliant at cutting inside and manipulating the central channels, so it’s imperative that TFC’s midfielders track back to close down any open space.

Ezequiel Barco’s heat map during the 2019 season. (via Wyscout)

Martinez, meanwhile, didn’t start in Atlanta’s opening playoff game against the New England Revolution, but returned for the Philadelphia match and played very well.

Michael Bradley’s role

Crucially for TFC, Martinez doesn’t track back to defend. This helps Michael Bradley because he remains crucial to the team’s build-up play and he struggles when man marked. This occurred against Canada on Oct. 15 and it led to Alphonso Davies’ goal.

Bradley’s importance to Toronto in possession is evidenced by him being one of the league leaders in xG Chain (xGC) and xG Buildup (xB) per 96 minutes, according to American Soccer Analysis.

All the more reason why De Boer should instruct one of his midfielders to harry the American.

Will TFC’s high press continue?

Considering how Philadelphia’s high press troubled Atlanta’s defenders, it’s likely that TFC will try to replicate that tactic from the conference finals versus NYCFC.

Atlanta has been more cautious under de Boer, and as such, attempt fewer progressive passes. Using the high press would be ideal here.

MLS team passing progressiveness in 2019. (via American Soccer Analysis)

There is one problem, though. The pitch at Mercedes-Benz stadium is wider than Citi Field’s. If Atlanta can play through that pressure, it could leave the full-backs exposed and plenty of gaps in midfield.

TFC has also seen the intensity of their pressing drop from one half to the next in the playoffs. The Reds were energetic and fluid versus D.C. United and NYCFC in the first halves of those matches. The intensity dropped in the second half, but in the NYCFC game, the midfielders couldn’t string passes together and were often static.

TFC’s pass map in the first half (left) and second half (right) vs. NYCFC. (via

Maybe chalk that down to fatigue having played more than 120 minutes against D.C. United four days prior. With a full week off before this game, Toronto should be fresher and ready for a hard-fought contest.

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