TORONTO – Toronto FC is not meekly accepting the suspension of star forward Jozy Altidore for the next round of Major League Soccer’s post-season.
Coach Greg Vanney confirmed Monday that the team is appealing the red card handed out to Altidore as part of a halftime melee between players and staff from both TFC and the New York Red Bulls in the tunnel leading back to the locker room during Sunday’s playoff match at BMO Field.
Toronto lost the game 1-0, but it won the aggregate playoff series on the away goals rule to advance to the Eastern Conference final, where it will meet the Columbus Crew.
TFC alleges that several Red Bulls ambushed Altidore in the tunnel. A fracas broke out involving players and staff from both sides, and stadium security officials and local police had to step in to break it up and restore order. In the aftermath of the ruckus, Altidore and New York midfielder Sacha Kljestan ended up being thrown out, and both clubs played the second half with 10 men.
Altidore’s expulsion from Sunday’s contest means he will be suspended for the first leg of the Eastern Conference final, scheduled for Nov. 21 in Ohio, unless TFC’s appeal results in his red card being overturned.
“There is ongoing discussion and a collection of as much evidence as possible, and we’ll see where that goes,” Vanney told reporters on Monday afternoon.
There are security cameras in the area where the dust-up took place, and TFC is looking at pulling that footage to build its case to the league.
“All that stuff is being collected as part of an ongoing look at what might have transpired in that space,” Vanney confirmed.
He later added: “It’s in the hands of the league now, and we are giving them as much information as we have, and everybody’s account of who was in the area, and it will go from there.”
The altercation took place closer to the end of the tunnel, outside Toronto’s locker room. Vanney argues that the Red Bulls shouldn’t haven’t even been there – there is a separate hallway near the front of the tunnel that leads to the visitors’ dressing room.
“The situation escalated when opposing players and staff are in the side of the tunnel that they shouldn’t be in, and now you get a lot of people in a very small space with heated emotion, and it starts to boil over. There is a corridor that goes the opposite direction for a reason, and [New York] did not go in that direction. They should not be in that space, and therefore things started to boil over,” Vanney said.
TFC wingback Justin Morrow added: “Their whole team, for the most part, was in our tunnel outside out of the locker room. … They shouldn’t be in our tunnel, and I think they instigated [the skirmish].”
Toronto defender Nick Hagglund said he was in front of Altidore in the tunnel when he heard running coming from behind him. Hagglund turned around to see Kljestan come up on Altidore, but then turned forward to head into the locker room. He turned around again seconds later when he heard hostilities break out behind him.
Neither Hagglund nor Morrow saw the altercation between Altidore and Kljestan that appeared to be the flashpoint that led to the uproar. For his part, Kljestan claimed that Altidore pushed him.
“At halftime he shoved me into the wall. I have a clear conscious,” Kljestan said after Sunday’s game.
That ugly scene in the tunnel followed an ill-tempered first half. Tensions boiled over at the 34-minute mark when Altidore came to the defence of teammate Sebastian Giovinco after he brought down New York’s Tyler Adams. Altidore got into it with Kljestan, and the TFC forward shamefully hit the ground during a face-to-face showdown in order to draw a foul.
“I think that he went to stand over Tyler Adams and went to intimidate him, and I came in to ask him to stop and get out of my face, and I pushed him back and, obviously, he fell down, very easily in my opinion” Kljestan said.
Altidore and Kljestan were originally yellow carded, but that wasn’t the end of it. More physical and chippy play between the teams ensued as the officiating crew lost control of the match.
“It got to a situation [that included] the fourth official running onto the field before the half was done to get between Jozy and other players where there was nothing there. There was absolutely nothing there, and he managed to go get up in Jozy’s space and escort him off the field when there was absolutely nothing there, and the half hadn’t even been blown yet. I don’t understand what that is, but to me it escalates a situation that isn’t a situation before [the hostility in the tunnel] even transpires,” Vanney offered.
But don’t players on both teams bear any responsibility for what took place at half time? Vanney conceded they did, but he maintained that the Red Bulls instigated things.
“For sure, we need to control our emotions as best as possible. That goes for even the discussions we’re having on the field [with the ref] when there are fouls [called against us]. We need to let those things go and move on, for sure. But there’s a difference, I think, between being an instigator and being something else. For me there’s a difference there,” Vanney said.
Vanney bristled when asked by Sportsnet if either New York coach Jesse Marsch or anyone from the Red Bulls organization reached out to him or anybody else at TFC after the game in an attempt to mend fences.
“I don’t know whether to take that [question] serious. No. In the grand scheme of things, I think they got what they were looking for, which was to antagonize Jozy, somebody who they could pick on. If you want me to show you the video, I’d be happy to show you the video of that,” Vanney stated.
Altidore finished second in team scoring during the regular season, with 15 goals in 27 appearances. He also chipped in with six assists, so it’s understandable why Toronto is anxious to get his suspension overturned for the first leg of Columbus.
Altidore’s potential absence would be especially hurtful for TFC considering they will be missing Giovinco for the first leg. The Italian forward, who scored a team-high 16 goals this season and is a finalist for the league’s MVP award, picked up his second yellow card of the New York playoff series on Sunday, thus earning an automatic one-game suspension.
Toronto hosts the decisive second leg of the Eastern Conference final on Nov. 29. Should Toronto beat Columbus, it will host the MLS Cup final at BMO Field on Dec. 9, and would host the winner of the Western Conference final between the Houston Dynamo and Seattle Sounders.
Altidore was unavailable to speak to reporters as he was attending to personal business that was previously scheduled for Monday.
Sportsnet sent an email to MLS seeking comment, but the league hasn’t yet responded.