HARRISON, N.J. – The heckling started long before kickoff.
As soon as Toronto FC took to the pitch for its warm-up, two New York Red Bulls fans sitting directly behind the outdoor press box at Red Bull Arena began provocatively prodding the visiting players.
The two gentlemen took full advantage of their proximity to the pitch, a mere stone’s throw away from the touchline, continuously jeering the TFC players as they went through their pre-game rituals. It continued throughout the opening leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal, and it didn’t end until after the final whistle was blown following a 2-1 win by TFC, courtesy of a magnificent free-kick goal by Sebastian Giovinco.
As Toronto’s players walked off the pitch and headed towards the tunnel that led back to the locker-room, one of the fans managed to get one last shot in: “Hey TFC! I thought you guys were supposed to be the best team in the league. That was pretty ugly.”
It was ugly. But that was exactly the point.
To be sure, there were moments of individual brilliance from TFC on Monday night. Jozy Altidore didn’t get an assist on the opening goal, but the hulking forward made a slick move down the right flank, side stepping a New York defender and delivering a dangerous ball into the box that eventually found its way to Victor Vazquez who fired it home.
As for Giovinco, he came up with another highlight-reel goal from a free kick, this one from 25 yards out that sailed into the top left corner past Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.
But for the most part, this was an ugly win by TFC against a New York side that tested their mettle, both physical and mental. The Red Bulls dominated possession, and Toronto had to defend for stretches. Instead of forcing their attacking will on their opponents, TFC had to sit back at times and hit out on the counter. New York pushed Toronto out of its comfort zone, and TFC had to fight and scratch for the win.
Sometimes, you are made to work a little harder for victories. It’s not always about winning pretty, and putting on a show. In the MLS playoffs, it’s often about doing what you have to do, and grinding it out. That’s what TFC did on Monday night at Red Bull Arena – they got down and dirty, and came out the other side clean, and now they return home for Sunday’s return leg with two road goals in the bag.
During his tenure in Toronto, Michael Bradley has been fond of saying that there is no right or wrong way to play the game, that you don’t get extra credit for putting on an attacking display. He said the exact same thing after last year’s heartbreaking loss to Seattle in the MLS Cup final. The Sounders didn’t register a shot on net, but, Bradley argued, they weren’t obligated to do so.
He understood then and he understands now that in the end, it’s simply about earning the result by any means necessary. You have to do what you have to do, often at the expense of aesthetics.
“If you want to be the team holding the trophy in the end, then you have to deal with these kinds of nights. It can’t phase you. You have to have a group that accepts the challenge, that embraces it, that goes for it and finds ways to win. They’re not the prettiest games always. But, to get to the biggest games you have to know how to navigate these ones,” Bradley told reporters after Monday’s win.
This was a not an easy game 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.
On the balance of play, it could have gone either way – either a New York win or a Toronto win. TFC scored early, absorbed some pressure, and weathered the Red Bulls’ furious storm in the second half. Ultimately, Giovinco’s free-kick goal was the difference.
Not pretty, and not a typical Toronto FC win. But again, it didn’t have to be.
“You have to know how to win on different type of nights in different ways. I think we’ve shown we can do that. Again, these are different kind of games and the teams that understand that, the teams that don’t let that phase them, are typically the ones who give themselves the best chance,” Bradley said.