• Toronto FC 2 (Vazquez 8’, Giovinco 72’), New York Red Bulls 1 (Royer 45’ + 1’)
• Toronto takes control of Eastern semifinal with 2 road goals
• TFC hosts return leg on Sunday afternoon at BMO Field
HARRISON, NEW JERSEY – Advantage, Toronto FC.
Victor Vazquez gave Toronto an early lead, and Sebastian Giovinco scored another highlight-reel free kick to lift TFC to a 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls on Monday night in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
It was tightly-contested match with several swings in momentum, but TFC’s two road goals puts them in the driver’s seat going home. Toronto will host New York at BMO Field on Sunday in the second leg of the semifinals. A draw, or even a 1-0 loss would be enough to see TFC advance in the aggregate series. The Red Bulls need to win by at least two goals in the return match in order to move on to the next round.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney insisted his team won’t take its foot off the gas or let up an inch because of their precious road goals.
“We like having them but there’s still 90 minutes to play. We’ll find out how big of an advantage they are once we get to the end of the next game. It’s good to go home with the advantage. Now it’s important that our group realizes they’re only half way there and they still have a lot of work to do to close things out,” Vanney explained.
This was a not an easy win for Toronto, who entered this playoff series as the firm favorite after finishing first in the Eastern Conference, 19 points ahead of sixth-place New York. The Red Bulls pushed TFC on this night, though.
“These games take on a life of their own. They are so different than games in the regular season, and you have to embrace that. You can’t think that everything you do in the regular season is going to translate in the same way on these types of nights,” Toronto captain Michael Bradley warned.
As expected, Vanney deployed his “A-team,” with the only decision he had to make was whether to opt for Steven Beitashour or Nicolas Hasler at right wingback. He ended up going with Beitashour, the more defensive option. In total, there were seven players from the starting 11 in last year’s MLS Cup final that started for TFC against New York. Alex Bono, Chris Mavinga, Marky Delgado and Vazquez were the newcomers.
New York fans were still clearly upset over the U.S. national team’s recent failure to qualify for the World Cup. Bradley and forward Jozy Altidore, veteran members of the American squad, were booed every time they touched the ball. Fans in the south end of Red Bull Arena even took to dropping F-Bombs in loud chants directed at Bradley at Altidore. Bradley said he didn’t take notice of the abuse hurled his way.
“It is what it is,” Bradley said.
The Red Bulls are known for their pressing style, and trying to create turnovers in their opponent’s half before hitting out on the counter.
But the roles were reversed on the opening goal. Bradley caused New York’s Felipe to cough up the ball, and it found its way to Vazquez. Altidore made a slick move down the right flank, side stepping a defender and delivering a cross that goalkeeper Luis Robles parried. But it fell to Vazquez at the edge of the penalty area, and the Spaniard skillfully corralled it before firing it past Robles.
Toronto continued to let New York have the ball while creating the better scoring chances. Justin Morrow’s shot was cleared off the line, and Delgado’s header from in close smacked the crossbar.
Outplayed for much of the half, New York was given a life line in injury time when Drew Moor was judged to have fouled Bradley Wright-Phillips. It looked to be a soft call, but Daniel Royer converted from the penalty spot, and the Red Bulls shockingly found themselves on level terms.
Moor rolled his ankle on the play that led to the penalty, and he was replaced by Nick Hagglund at the start of the second half. The youngster immediately settled into the game, making a number of defensive clearances and interceptions as the Red Bulls came out flying after the break.
Suddenly, New York’s possession led to meaningful opportunities on goal, and Toronto was forced onto the back foot as Vazquez was labouring with a hip injury. The Red Bulls were swarming, and Bono made a trio of solid saves, including one where he rushed off his line to deny Wright-Phillips after the Englishman latched onto a ball played over the top.
“We figured [New York’s surge] was coming,” Vanney stated.
“They had to come out and turn it in the second half. It’s not surprising. They’re an aggressive team; that’s the way they play. We were caught on our heels a little bit, so it made some of our transitions difficult. But we stayed together.”
Quiet for most of the contest, Giovinco drew a foul and then did what he does best, score a majestic free kick, this one from 25 yards out that Robles had no chance of stopping. Like the call that led to the New York penalty, it was a soft decision from the ref, but it mattered little to the Italian.
“He’s amazing. We talk about it all the time, but the knack to step up in the moment and make a play is what star players do, and he was able to do that tonight,” Vanney offered.
Asked if he’s reached the point where he expects Giovinco to score from every dead ball situation, Bradley smirked and replied, “Yeah, we’re probably getting pretty close.”
Wright-Phillips had a chance late in the game to tie things up, but he pushed his shot wide of the post from in close.
NOTES: Monday marked the first-ever playoff meeting between Toronto and New York… Should Toronto win this series, it’ll meet either New York City FC or the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference final. TFC would have home-field advantage for that series should they get past the Red Bulls.