Toronto FC upsets Atlanta United, will face Seattle at MLS Cup yet again

Doug McIntyre
A first-half goal from Nicolas Benezet and and late stunner from Nick DeLeon lifted Toronto FC to its third Eastern Conference title in four years. (AP)
A first-half goal from Nicolas Benezet and and late stunner from Nick DeLeon lifted Toronto FC to its third Eastern Conference title in four years. (AP)

For the third time in four years, Toronto FC will face the Seattle Sounders at MLS Cup.

TFC stunned trophy holders Atlanta United 2-1 Wednesday, coming from behind to emerge victorious after the defending champions took an early lead at home. The win sets up a rematch with Seattle — which upset LAFC on Tuesday — in the league’s Nov. 10 decider, which will be hosted by the Sounders.

The incredible match-winning goal was scored by journeyman midfielder Nick DeLeon in the 78th minute:

Atlanta took the lead through Julian Gressel less than four minutes into the contest. Five Stripes defender Florentin Pogba — the older brother of Manchester United’s French World Cup winner Paul Pogba — started the play by winning the ball to Ezequiel Barco, and the Argentine threaded a seeing-eye through-ball past the Reds backline and into the path of countryman Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez.

Martinez unselfishly slid the ball across Quentin Westberg’s goal for Gressel to tap into a gaping net:

The quick start had the home crowd rocking, and the decibel level inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium only increased when Michael Bradley was whistled for fouling Martinez four minutes after that. Referee Alan Kelly’s call appeared harsh (although VAR did not intervene upon review), but Kelly did TFC a huge favor by not issuing Bradley a red card.

That decision proved even more important after Westberg saved Josef Martinez’s attempt from the spot, preventing the hosts from doubling their lead before some supporters had made it to their seats.

Instead of being down two goals and their captain, the Reds capitalized on the momentum swing by pulling level as Nicolas Benezet curled a strike past Atlanta backstop Brad Guzan:

The hosts had plenty of chances to regain their advantage, and they dictated most of the play. But Atlanta’s attack was never quite able to produce another final pass. With options all around him, Gressel squandered a golden opportunity by losing the ball shortly before DeLeon sealed the outcome.

Here are three quick thoughts on the match.

Toronto FC continues to be a road warrior ...

So much for home field advantage. As they did in the conference semis against Eastern Conference regular season champ New York City FC, Toronto went on the road and knocked off the higher seed. This time, they did it in one of the most imposing venues for a visiting team in MLS.

TFC’s experience showed. Atlanta has some big-game chops of its own, having already won the U.S. Open Cup (against Minnesota) and Campeones Cup (against Mexican powerhouse Club America) this season in addition to the 2018 MLS title. But this TFC has been though even more, and it showed on Wednesday. Seattle will be the favorites in 11 days, but Toronto FC has proven that it won’t be fazed by the challenge.

... But Atlanta should’ve won this match

For whatever reason, Frank de Boer’s side never seemed to recover mentally from the five-minute span that included the missed penalty and Benezet’s leveler. Kelly’s decision to keep Bradley on the field also proved crucial, of course, but Atlanta can hardly use that as an excuse.

In the end, the home side let the Reds back into the match, and they weren’t sharp enough when it mattered. TFC deserved its win. But the Five Stripes will also go into the offseason knowing that they weren’t beaten as much as they beat themselves, leaving plenty of questions for De Boer and his staff to answer in the months to come.

The atmosphere in Seattle should be off the charts

Toronto hosted the first two Reds-Sounders finales, two of the most memorable MLS championships ever played. The spectacle in Seattle has the potential to exceed either.

CentryLink Field hosted its lone MLS Cup a decade ago, but that was back in the days when the league picked a neutral site for its annual showpiece. With the Sounders involved this time around and looking to add to the title they won in Canada in 2016, all 69,000 seats in the building should be filled, almost all of them by fans in rave green.

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