ATLANTA — A makeshift Toronto FC lineup showed off the club's good and bad sides Saturday, rallying for a 1-1 tie with Atlanta United on an 88th-minute Jordan Perruzza goal.
It had looked bad early against an Atlanta side fighting to solidify a playoff berth, 19 points above Toronto in the standings.
The 63rd goal conceded this season by Toronto was one of its ugliest, a goalkeeping gaffe by Quentin Westberg that served up a gift to Atlanta's Luiz Araujo in the 15th minute. It was just the latest example of TFC digging itself a hole – Toronto has conceded a league-worst 14 goals in the first 15 minutes of play this year.
Toronto (6-17-10) was in survival mode for much of the contest against an Atlanta side bristling with attacking weapons. It bent but didn't break after going down early and its young talent made the home side pay late.
With time running out, 19-year-old Jayden Nelson found Dom Dwyer in the penalty box and the veteran forward headed the ball over for the 20-year-old Perruzza, in just his fourth MLS game, to knock it home — stunning the 43,372 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
There was a short check for video review, to ensure the goal wasn't offside before Perruzza could officially open his MLS account.
"When the ball went into the back of the net I didn't know if I should celebrate, because you could celebrate and then two minutes they take the goal away," said Perruzza, a Toronto native who grew up going to games at BMO Field.
"I tried to stay calm at first and then the ref kind of nodded towards me and I just started celebrating."
Part of the joy came from the fact he was on the field with some of the players he had come up the ranks with at TFC.
"It just felt so natural for me to be playing with them," he said. "I mean we all played in the second team together. I feel we have just such a good bond, even in the dressing room. We're just best friends, all of us. It just makes things easier on the pitch when you know you can trust a guy off the field."
Perruzza is a homegrown player, occupying one of two last slots on the Toronto roster, earning a base salary of US$63,547 — termed the "reserve minimum" by the league.
Toronto is winless in five (0-2-3) but has taken points off three playoff contenders in successive ties with Montreal, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
It was a game Atlanta should have put away. But the home side paid for wasteful finishing — Atlanta had eight corners to Toronto's one and outshot TFC 19-11 but only managed to put four of those shots on target compared to eight for Toronto.
"We created many many chances and it wasn't a typical day for our forwards to miss so many chances," lamented Atlanta coach Gonzalo Pineda. "Not too much to say. I mean we lost two points again at home and (I'm) very very disappointed."
While Atlanta (12-9-11) beat Inter Miami 2-1 last time out at home, it had to settle for a 1-1 tie with New York City the game before that after conceding a 90th-minute goal.
It was the last road game of the regular season for Toronto and coach Javier Perez dug deep into his roster to save players for Wednesday's Canadian Championship semifinal against Pacific FC, hoping that tournament can serve as a silver lining to a season gone wrong.
Toronto captain Michael Bradley, midfielder Jonathan Osorio, fullback/wingback Richie Laryea, fullback Auro and centre back Chris Mavinga did not make the trip. The quintet have made a combined 857 appearances for the club in all competitions.
Only Westberg, Noble Okello, Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore retained their starting positions from Wednesday's tie with Philadelphia. Altidore and Pozuelo, who started with the captain's armband, were replaced at halftime along with veteran defender Omar Gonzalez.
Defender Julian Dunn made his second career MLS start and third appearance — and the first since 2018.
In addition to Nelson, the Toronto starting 11 featured 17-year-old Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and 21-year-old Okello.
Venezuelan designated player Yeferson Soteldo, forward Ifunanyachi Achara and centre back Eriq Zavaleta were out injured, joining long-term TFC absentees Ayo Akinola, Tsubasa Endoh and Ralph Priso.
Toronto shot itself in the foot early when Westberg, after taking a back pass from Justin Morrow, got the ball caught under his feet as he tried to clear. Araujo pounced and had an easy tap-in for his fourth of the season. It was an uncharacteristic handling error from Westberg, who is good with his feet.
"If we didn't make this mistake — it's a completely avoidable mistake, like many many … this season — tonight we would be talking about a win and not a tie," said Perez. "But we are where we are. I think the important part is to learn the lessons. And I just hope not to see any of these goals from now to the end of the season.
"For me it's almost like arrogance," the Spaniard added. "Sometimes we have to be more humble and we have to simplify things for ourselves."
Ezequiel Barco thought he had scored in the 55th minute with a delightful chip after a mesmerizing back-and-forth with Josef Martinez in the Toronto penalty box. But the play was ruled offside and all Barco got was a yellow card for taking off his jersey to celebrate a goal that wasn't.
While Atlanta was missing Argentine youth international midfielder Santiago Sosa, it fielded a stacked lineup with Martinez, Barco, Araujo, Marcelino Moreno and Matheus Rossetto leading a potent attack.
Atlanta is now unbeaten in four games (2-0-2), a run that started with a 2-0 road victory over Toronto on Oct. 16. That game saw both TFC's Auro and Atlanta's Barco sent off late for violent conduct.
While it ended the Five Stripes' playoff run in 2019, Toronto has never won in five regular-season trips (0-2-3) to Atlanta.
Both Atlanta and Toronto changed coaches mid-season.
Atlanta is 6-3-2 under Pineda, who took over as coach in mid-August after Gabriel Heinze was fired. Toronto is 5-9-8 under Perez, the assistant coach who was promoted after Chris Armas was let go July 4.
After hosting Pacific, Toronto wraps up the MLS season against visiting D.C. United on Nov. 7.
Saturday's game was a 6 p.m. local time start, so as not to conflict with Game 4 of the World Series between the Braves and Houston Astros at Truist Park, some 16 kilometres away.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2021
The Canadian Press