TORONTO — Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo could both see some playing time Saturday when Toronto FC returns to action against visiting Atlanta United after the international break.
While coach Javier Perez was not definitive on either designated player taking the field, he said there was a chance.
"This international break has been really good for us because we have had time to work with players that have been out for a long time" he told reporters in a virtual availability Friday. "The other thing is we have to remember that some of these players have been out for a long time and it takes a little bit of time for them to get into the fifth gear they need to (be in). But it's all good news."
Both players have been training with the team this week.
Altidore has not played since Aug. 7, missing the last 11 games in all competitions. He underwent surgery on his right ankle on Aug. 19 in New York with the club saying at the time his recovery would take six weeks.
Sidelined by a lower body injury that has dogged him all year, Pozuelo last saw action Aug. 27 in a 3-1 loss to Montreal. The Spanish playmaker, the league's reigning MVP, has not played in the seven matches since although he was on the bench for Toronto's last game, a 3-1 home win over Chicago on Oct. 3.
Altidore and Pozuelo, whose salaries this year total US$8.25 million, have appeared in a combined 23 matches this season with three goals and four assists between them.
There is also a question-mark over winger Yeferson Soteldo, the team's other designated player. He saw 14 minutes off the bench in Venezuela's 1-0 loss to visiting Paraguay in Merida on Wednesday, with a long journey home and a health issue.
Perez said while Soteldo had been feeling "some discomfort," the club's medical staff says it's not as severe as initially thought. He will be evaluated prior to the match.
"At the moment, he's questionable for (Saturday)," said Perez.
While Toronto (6-15-7) is unbeaten in its last five games in all competitions (4-0-1), it stands 13th in the 14th-team Eastern Conference — 15 points out of the playoffs. A loss Saturday will eliminate it from post-season contention, as will a tie if certain other results occur.
That would mark just the second time since 2015 that Toronto failed to make the playoffs. Toronto, which first took the field in 2007, missed the post-season in its first eight campaigns — also exiting after the regular season in 2018.
TFC had lost six straight and gone winless in nine (0-7-2) prior to the current unbeaten run. Its hopes now are pinned on the Canadian Championship with a Nov. 3 semifinal against Pacific FC.
"We want to win that," said Toronto defender Kemar Lawrence. "I feel like every game right now is just getting us sharper and sharper for that. So we want to end the year with a trophy. Now we can't get MLS Cup but a trophy's a trophy.
"So we'll take what we can get at this point and that's the only thing out there right now. We win that, we hold our heads up and we get ready for next season."
Like Altidore, striker Dom Dwyer and centre back Chris Mavinga have been upgraded to questionable ahead of the Atlanta game. Ayo Akinola, Tsubasa Endoh, Ralph Priso and Luke Singh are out.
Toronto's Mark Delgado, Richie Laryea and Soteldo are all one yellow card away from a suspension.
Eighth-place Atlanta (10-9-9) arrives on the cusp of the playoffs — 14 points ahead of Toronto.
"Every game is a final," defender Brooks Lennon said of the club's remaining six matches
"It's a tough place to play, no matter what time of year it is," Lennon said of Toronto. "They've got a quality team. It doesn't matter where they are in the standings or the table … We're not going there and thinking we're just going to run all over these guys."
Atlanta has lost two of its last three, including a 2-1 defeat in Montreal last time out. But prior to the Montreal defeat, it had lost just two of 11 matches (8-2-1) — a run that included a 1-0 victory over visiting Toronto on Aug. 18.
The club is 4-3-0 under Mexican coach Gonzalo Pineda who was hired in August in the wake of Gabriel Heinze's firing. Atlanta went 2-4-7 this season under Heinze, an Argentine who had a falling out with star striker Josef Martinez.
Martínez is back in the fold although he did not practise Thursday, suffering from hamstring/knee soreness. Pineda says the Venezuelan is day-to-day.
"He's doing more every day," Pineda explained.
"In Josef's case, he's so important to the team that if he's available, if he has even 30 minutes in his legs to impact the game, I might be willing to take him," he added.
Atlanta midfielder Tyler Wolff is out with a toe issue.
The club trained this week using several formations, ranging from deploying a false No. 9 to using veteran Mexican Erick Torres up top.
"I think there might be one that adjusts better for the opponent, which I won't share for sure," Pineda said with a smile. "But there is my favourite specifically for Toronto that I think we can cause them some problems. But at the same time that takes away some things too."
Martinez, the league's MVP in 2018, scored his 100th goal for Atlanta in the 1-0 win over Inter Miami on Sept. 29, becoming the fastest player in MLS history to reach 100 goals. He did it in 125 games. Robbie Keane is the next fastest, scoring his first 100 goals for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 156 outings.
The 28-year-old Martinez has 10 goals in 19 appearances this season.
Defenders Miles Robinson and George Bello are back with the team after international duty with the U.S.
Atlanta is 2-6-6 on the road this season
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press