The normal squad rotation from a midweek to a weekend game will likely be taken up a notch Saturday when Toronto FC visits Atlanta United in the penultimate game of a dismal MLS season.
While sixth-place Atlanta (12-9-10) is looking to solidify a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, 13th-place Toronto (6-17-9) has its eyes set on next Wednesday's Canadian Championship semifinal against visiting Pacific FC.
"I think we all know at this point that's the priority for the team, for the club — the Canadian Championship," said Toronto coach Javier Perez.
"Yes, it's going to influence the (team) selection," the Spaniard added. "Still, we want to go to Atlanta thinking that we are going to have a team to compete for three points. But we are going to have to make some modifications in the team to get the team ready for Wednesday."
The Canadian Championship, which Toronto has won seven times, offers the club a shot at something to celebrate in a season gone wrong. The Toronto-Pacific winner will face 2019 champion CF Montreal, which dispatched Forge FC on Wednesday in a marathon 11-round penalty shootout that was eventually decided by penalties taken by the two goalkeepers, for the Voyageurs Cup.
The pandemic reduced the 2020 Canadian Championship to a TFC-Forge final, which has yet to be scheduled.
With a trophy and berth in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League on the line, Perez is likely to rest some key players on the weekend.
Not that he is spoiled for choice with a lengthy injury list.
Venezuelan designated player Yeferson Soteldo, who missed the last two games after limping out of the Oct. 20 loss to Miami, may be done for the season. Forward Ifunanyachi Achara will miss his fourth game.
Centre back Eriq Zavaleta is also out, joining long-term absentees Ayo Akinola, Tsubasa Endoh and Ralph Priso.
Centre back Omar Gonzalez, forward Dom Dwyer, fullback/wingback Richie Laryea and goalkeeper Alex Bono are listed as questionable.
Whatever the Toronto lineup, Atlanta coach Gonzalo Pineda is not taking the visitors lightly.
"Those are tricky games because many times players play with more freedom, playing with nothing to lose, and it's a good environment for them to apply themselves at their best," said the Mexican. "Some of them, they're playing maybe for their next contract and that puts them in emergency mode too. So it won't be easy."
Argentine youth international Santiago Sosa is out injured while fellow midfielder Tyler Wolff is listed as questionable for Atlanta.
After hosting Pacific, Toronto wraps up the MLS season against visiting D.C. United on Nov. 7. It's their first meeting since July 3 when D.C. thrashed Toronto 7-1, dropping TFC's record to 1-8-2 and prompting the firing of first-year coach Chris Armas.
Atlanta, with 46 points, is in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference with only four points separating fourth-place New York City FC (47 points) and ninth-place Montreal (43 points).
Atlanta goes into weekend play 19 points ahead of Toronto, which remarkably has conceded 27 more goals than Atlanta this season (62, compared to 35).
Toronto is winless in four games (0-2-2) but has taken points off playoff contenders Montreal and Philadelphia most recently with 1-1 and 2-2 ties, respectively.
Atlanta is coming off a midweek 2-1 win over Inter Miami and is unbeaten in three games (2-0-1), a run that started with a 2-0 road victory over Toronto on Oct. 16. That game saw both TFC's Brazilian fullback Auro and Atlanta's Ezequiel Barco sent off late for violent conduct.
Atlanta won 1-0, on a Barco goal, when the two met Aug. 18 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Toronto has gone 3-6-3 since then in league play while Atlanta went 7-3-1.
The MLS disciplinary committee fined Barco an undisclosed amount Friday for simulation/embellishment in Atlanta’s win over Inter Miami.
Both Atlanta and Toronto changed coaches mid-season.
Atlanta is 6-3-1 under Pineda, who took over in mid-August after Gabriel Heinze was fired. Toronto is 5-9-7 under Perez, the assistant coach who was promoted after Armas was let go.
While Pineda is under contract through the 2024 season, Toronto has not clarified what Perez's role will be next season.
Toronto has never won in four regular-season trips (0-2-2) to Atlanta. But it ended the Five Stripes' 2019 season with a 2-1 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the Eastern Conference final.
In other news, Soteldo has made the list of 47 finalists for the league's MVP award and is also one of 38 candidates for newcomer of the year. Other Toronto players on the long list for annual awards are Bono (goalkeeper of the year), Laryea (top defender), Jacob Shaffelburg (young player), Achara (comeback player of the year), Justin Morrow (MLS Works humanitarian of the year and Perez (coach of the year).
The league will release a list of finalists prior to the start of the playoffs.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2021.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press