MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Past two MLS Cup winners collide in Atlanta

MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Past two MLS Cup winners collide in Atlanta

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MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Past two MLS Cup winners collide in Atlanta

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The past two winners of the MLS Cup title square off in Atlanta for a chance to move a step closer to adding a second championship to the trophy case.

Atlanta United plays host to Toronto FC on Wednesday night at Mercedez-Benz Stadium, and does so knowing a victory means another chance to host an MLS Cup final after Seattle defeated Los Angeles FC on Tuesday to book its place in the final.

The Eastern Conference final features several intriguing matchups, and while Atlanta is the favorite, TFC has shown in these playoffs that it is a team that can’t be overlooked.

Frank de Boer’s side boasts the likes of 2018 Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez leading the attack, while Ezequiel Barco, Julian Gressel, and Pity Martinez are all dangerous contributors. Greg Vanney’s side comes in with plenty of confidence after eliminating No. 1 seed NYCFC in the semifinals. Alejandro Pozuelo will be the player to watch for TFC, as he looks to build on his outstanding season, and Man of the Match showing against NYCFC.

Here is a closer look at what to expect for Wednesday’s Eastern Conference Final in Atlanta:

Season Series

These teams split their regular season meetings against one another with Atlanta winning 2-0 at home back in May. Toronto FC exacted revenge with a 3-2 victory at BMO Field in June.

Julian Gressel scored twice in the regular season for the Five Stripes, while Alejandro Pozuelo scored a pair, including the game-winning goal, in June.

Players to Watch

Atlanta United: Josef Martinez, Darlington Nagbe, Pity Martinez, Julian Gressel, Brad Guzan.

Toronto FC: Alejandro Pozuelo, Michael Bradley, Quentin Westberg, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Osorio.

Matchup to Watch

Alejandro Pozuelo vs. Darlington Nagbe.

Pozuelo has blossomed in a false nine role at the front of TFC’s attack, and while Atlanta’s central defenders will be tasked with ensuring he doesn’t have much room to operate, Nagbe will be very important in helping limit the passing lanes and service to Pozuelo. He will also be vital when Altidore eventually enters the match and Pozuelo slides into his customary playmaker role.

X-Factors

Atlanta United: Ezequiel Barco

With Ezequiel Barco coming back into the fold at the end of the season, Frank de Boer has another option to call on if needed. The 20-year-old has the ability to take on defenders one-on-one, while setting up his teammates in front of goal.

Toronto FC: Jozy Altidore

Jozy Altidore is unlikely to feature in Greg Vanney’s starting XI, but can play a huge role off of the bench. The veteran forward brings a physical presence to TFC’s attack, which would allow Pozuelo to roam freely and pick up good positions in Atlanta’s half. Altidore has 11 goals to his credit this season and very well could add to that total at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday.

Outlook

Atlanta United will be the favorites at home, a place where not many sides have gone and won.

Frank de Boer will have a decision to make in the center of the defense with Miles Robinson already ruled out due to injury. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez will either be lined up next to Florentin Pogba or Michael Parkhurst, if the veteran is fit in time.

Josef Martinez’s eye for goal is always a threat for the Five Stripes offensively, but Julian Gressel has had TFC’s number this season. The German scored the winning goal against the Philadelphia Union last round and his ability to get up the field could get TFC out of shape frequently.

Toronto FC will be riding plenty of momentum after knocking off NYCFC, but Atlanta at home is a different animal. Greg Vanney’s side will look to pressure the defending champs early and often to get them out of rhythm in their home stadium.

The Five Stripes’ offensive weapons could be a handful for TFC’s defense, so we very well could see Omar Gonzalez come into the fold to add experience in the backline. Fullbacks Auro and Justin Morrow will try to get up the field as well to keep Atlanta’s wide players back in their half.

Michael Bradley will play in his traditional defensive midfield role and try to disrupt the Five Stripes’ counter-attacking ability. Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio can help if needed, but expect them to be asked to cover a lot of ground when Atlanta has the ball.

Alejandro Pozuelo is the danger man for TFC’s offense, so it wouldn’t be surprising if de Boer has someone in his defense radar him for much of the game. Jozy Altidore’s role could be big off the bench and if he is fully fit to go, but he will be the most dangerous option for Vanney to call on if he needs a goal.

Atlanta United will be the favorite on Wednesday night, but as Seattle showed in LA, and as Toronto FC showed against NYCFC, home-field advantage doesn’t guarantee you much during the playoffs.

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