Toronto FC’s MLS playoff hopes take a blow as Atlanta United wins 4-2

ATLANTA — Toronto FC’s slim playoff hopes were all but snuffed out Saturday, beaten 4-2 by Atlanta United with defender Juan Jose Purata scoring a hat trick.

All three of his goals came off corners, with the cherry on the cake coming in the 88th minute as Purata doubled his season output in one match.

Combined with Chicago and Charlotte wins, the loss dropped Toronto three places to 13th in Eastern Conference — six places and seven points out of the Major League Soccer playoff picture with three games remaining and nine points on the table. Toronto (9-15-7) has collected just one point out of a possible nine and been outscored 10-7 in its last three matches (0-2-1) in a playoff push that has fizzled.

“They wanted it more than we did tonight. There was no question about it,” said goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, who did his bit in his return to the lineup by saving a penalty and making a string of saves.

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“It wasn’t enough tonight, for sure.”

Atlanta (9-12-9) climbed one spot into 10th place.

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Thiago Almada scored the other goal for Atlanta, which outshot Toronto 27-10 (8-2 in shots on target). Ayo Akinola and Federico Bernardeschi replied for Toronto before a crowd of 42,670 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Both teams were missing star players.

Toronto was without Lorenzo Insigne who missed training Thursday due to what the team termed a “personal family situation.” The club did not elaborate but the matter was serious enough that fellow Italian Domenico Criscito skipped practice “to support Lorenzo and his family.”

Insigne, who is married with two children, had a scare in early August as Toronto was preparing to return home from a 4-3 win in Nashville. News of a “family health situation” after the team boarded its charter prompted TFC to delay the flight so the Italian could get more information. The former Napoli captain subsequently pulled out of the MLS all-star skills competition in Minneapolis but returned to training later that week.

Atlanta was missing star striker Josef Martinez, suspended for one game after a reported locker-room altercation with coach Gonzalo Pineda after a 2-1 loss last weekend in Portland. Former TFC forward Dom Dwyer started up front for Atlanta.

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Atlanta dominated a scoreless first half, denied the lead by Westberg’s penalty save.

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Purata put Atlanta ahead in the 47th minute, rising above Lukas McNaughton to head home a Brooks Lennon corner. The set piece was prompted by a fine Westberg save off Almada after a Mark-Anthony Kaye giveaway.

Akinola tied it in the 52nd minute, beating goalkeeper Raul Gudino with TFC’s first shot on target. Captain Michael Bradley started the play with a surging run before finding substitute Jesus Jimenez, who slipped the ball over to Akinola for his second of the season.

Purata scored off another Lennon corner in the 62nd minute, beating Jimenez after two teammates headed the ball to one side and then the other before finding the Mexican defender.

Atlanta acquired the 24-year-old in June on loan from Tigres UANL for the remainder of the 2022 season with an option to extend the loan for 2023 and a purchase option.

Purata is the first MLS player since at least 2010 to score three headed goals in a single match, according to Opta.

“Three goals by the guy we had really talked about as being their main threat (at set pieces). That’s really disappointing,” said Toronto coach Bob Bradley.

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It has taken Purata just 13 games to become the highest-scoring defender in Atlanta history. He becomes the fourth Atlanta player to record a hat trick.

“I’m very happy. I’m very excited,” he said through an interpreter. “Most of all I’m happy because the team won.”

Purata conceded a penalty, taking down Jimenez after Bernardeschi found the Spaniard just inside the penalty box. The call survived video review and Bernardeschi slotted the ball home in the 67th minute for his eighth goal, including five from the penalty spot, in 10 MLS outings.

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Bernardeschi (eight goals and three assists), Insigne (six goals and two assists) and Criscito (one goal) have been involved in 18 of Toronto’s last 22 goals in MLS action, including 12 of the last 14.

Almada scored in the 74th minute to give Atlanta a 3-2 lead after Toronto had twice pulled even. The Argentine designated player took advantage of the Toronto defence backing up — and Michael Bradley over-running the play — before unleashing a shot from the edge of the box that beat a diving Westberg.

Westberg made a terrific save in the 87th minute to deny Almada. Toronto forward Deandre Kerr hit the goalpost in stoppage time.

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It was largely one-way traffic for the home side in the first half. Atlanta had 11 shots (including three on target) before Toronto’s first attempt.

Bernardeschi won a penalty for Toronto in the 34th minute after his shot hit Amar Sejdic’s hand. The former Montreal midfielder had little choice in the matter, unable to get out of the way, and referee Rosendo Mendoza went to the pitchside monitor on the advice of Canadian VAR official Carol Anne Chenard.

Mendoza changed his mind on review, waving off the penalty.

Westberg, making his first start since July 13, stopped a Luiz Araujo penalty in the 12th minute, diving to his left to make the save. Shane O’Neill took down Lennon, prompting Mendoza to point to the penalty spot. The Atlanta attack started with a Jayden Nelson giveaway.

Westberg also saved a penalty — from Martinez — at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the 2019 Eastern Conference final, won 2-1 by Toronto. That marked TFC’s only previous success in Atlanta. Toronto had lost its previous five regular-season games (0-3-2).

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Westberg was making his seventh league start of the season compared to 24 for Alex Bono, who had been under the gun of late. Bob Bradley had hinted at the chance in goal when asked after last weekend’s 4-3 loss to visiting CF Montreal if his team had been getting the kind of goalkeeping it needs. His pithy response was “Not in this last stretch.”

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It may have been a costly night for Toronto. Criscito took a knock in a hard challenge late in thefirst half and was substituted at the break. Bob Bradley said the Italian fullback had also been feeling his hamstring.

Defender Doneil Henry came off the bench to make his 100th appearance for Toronto in all competitions, becoming the 15th player in club history to reach the milestone.

Toronto, which was also missing midfielder Jonathan Osorio, was coming off two disappointing home results: a 4–3 loss to CF Montreal and 2-2 tie with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

TFC led 2-0 after just seven minutes last weekend, only to concede four straight Montreal goals. And Toronto squandered a 2-1 lead in the game before that, settling for a tie with the Galaxy after conceding an 89th-minute goal.

Toronto had lost just one of seven games (4-1-2) before the Galaxy and Montreal matches, a run that coincided with the arrival of Bernardeschi and Insigne.

Atlanta had won just two of its last 10 league outings (2-4-4) and was coming off back-to-back road losses in Philadelphia (4-1) and Portland. It had not lost three straight since October 2020, a run that include a defeat at TFC’s hands.

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