Toronto keeps MLS Cup hopes alive, but only just, against Red Bulls
Toronto FC is moving on to the Eastern Conference finals despite losing to the New York Red Bulls 1-0 in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The result meant that the series was tied 2-2 on aggregate, with TFC progressing on the away goals rule.
Daniel Royer officially scored the game's only goal, though it appeared to take a deflection off Bradley Wright-Phillips. This came after Toronto's Jozy Altidore and the Red Bulls' Sacha Kljestan were sent off at halftime for an altercation in the tunnel.
Here are three thoughts from an ill-tempered match:
1. Toronto keeps MLS Cup hopes on track, but only just
TFC thought it had done most of the hard work when it won the first leg 2-1 at Red Bull Arena. Only by conceding multiple goals could Toronto come close to being eliminated. As such, the home side could invite the Red Bulls forward and do what it could to disrupt New York's rhythm. When the ball was won, it could rely on the brilliance of Victor Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco. Toronto was in prime position to dictate the game's proceedings.
Instead, TFC made life as difficult as possible for itself. The match devolved into a chippy, petulant encounter, full of pushing, shoving, tactical fouling and utterly dumb cards for dissent.
Still, after 45 minutes, the score was 0-0, and it looked like Toronto was in control.
But then the game was turned on its head as the players headed to their respective locker rooms at halftime. Both Kljestan and Altidore had already been booked just prior to the halftime whistle, when Altidore went to the ground theatrically following a shove from Kljestan. The bad blood didn't abate, and when the two teams emerged from the locker room, they were both playing with 10 men, thanks to the ejections of both players due to what was described as "unsporting behavior."
While Kljestan and Altidore are critical to their respective team's attack, New York was clearly the beneficiary. With two fewer players on the field, there was more space to be had, and it was New York that needed the goals.
Nerves at BMO Field were soon jangling after Royer's deflected effort settled into the Toronto net in the 53rd minute. Just nine minutes later, Wright-Phillips was put in alone by Tyler Adams, only for Alex Bono to save with his legs.
But ultimately, the Reds got the job done. For all the talk about Toronto's attacking pieces, its defense was second best in the league this season, and it was able to keep the Red Bulls in check.
That said, this was by no means a textbook example of how to protect a first-leg lead.
2. Red Bulls finally get some luck -- just not enough
The Red Bulls' playoff history is littered with underachievement and little to no luck. But when Royer scored, it seemed like this just might be the Red Bulls' day. A disallowed goal for Toronto in the 78th minute seemed to hint even more that Lady Luck might be smiling on New York. As it turned out, the damage done in the first leg was something the visitors were unable to overcome.
With the Red Bulls needing a minimum of two goals to advance, Marsch opted for a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield that had Adams operating as a central playmaker flanked by Kljestan and Royer. Adams in particular showed that he wasn't the slightest bit intimidated by the big stage, despite being on the receiving end of some heavy challenges. But it wasn't until the ejections of Altidore and Kljestan that the game opened up for the visitors and chances started to be created with greater frequency.
Wright-Phillips will no doubt rue his missed opportunity, one that would have put the visitors ahead on aggregate. But this was a day when New York simply couldn't break Toronto down with enough frequency, despite its sizable territorial advantage. Now its quest to win its first MLS Cup will have to wait at least another season.
3. This match should be a wake-up call for Toronto
It's rare that a team can play as poorly as Toronto did, lose the mental battle and manage to stay alive. Yet that is where TFC sits at the moment, with its hopes of winning MLS Cup -- and claiming a rare Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double -- still intact.
To be fair, TFC seemed to regain some composure as the game entered its latter stages, doing better in terms of keeping possession. But it's as stunning as it is head shaking that Toronto would lose its composure and allow itself to be drawn into such confrontations. This is a veteran team, and given its season-long dominance and performance in the first leg, simply keeping its collective head would be enough to secure the result needed. Instead, in this match TFC was in many ways its own worst enemy.
Altidore's red card wasn't the only negative on the day, either. Sebastian Giovinco's booking for dissent in the 80th minute will see him suspended for the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals. Captain Michael Bradley was booked for dissent after the halftime whistle. He'll now need to make sure he stays out of the referee's book in the first leg. Vazquez can count himself lucky that he wasn't booked for dissent late on. It is these kinds of self-inflicted wounds that can upend a championship quest.
Toronto has been hailed for its depth all year. With Altidore and Giovinco now suspended, TFC's bench will need to step up again when it matters most.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.