• New York Red Bulls 1 (Wright-Phillips 53’), Toronto FC 0
• Toronto loses, but wins aggregate series on away goals
• Altidore sent off; both teams play 2nd half with 10 men
• TFC to play 1st leg of Eastern final on the road on Nov. 21
TORONTO – It’s fitting that Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was in attendance for Sunday’s playoff game between Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls.
The second leg of this Eastern Conference semifinal closely resembled a hockey game at times, and included the soccer equivalent of a bench-clearing brawl as a melee broke out at halftime between both sets of players in the tunnel leading to the dressing room. Stadium security officials and local police had to step in to break it up and restore order.
In the aftermath of the ruckus, TFC forward Jozy Altidore and New York midfielder Sacha Kljestan ended up being thrown out, and the Red Bulls went on to earn a 1-0 win in an ugly and ill-tempered match featuring six yellow cards and two reds before 29,974 fans at BMO Field.
Despite the loss, Toronto advanced to the Eastern Conference final, winning the aggregate series, which finished tied 2-2, on the away goals rule – TFC earned a 2-1 win in New York in Monday’s opening leg.
Toronto will meet the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference final, with the first leg scheduled for Nov. 21 in Ohio. Columbus bested New York City FC in the other Eastern Semifinal.
Altidore’s expulsion means he is suspended for the first leg of the Eastern Conference final. Top scorer Sebastian Giovinco is also suspended after picking up his second yellow card of this playoff series on Sunday.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney didn’t see the incident in the tunnel, but he was told by team staff who did that Altidore was confronted by several Red Bulls. Vanney hinted that TFC will file a protest with the league to overturn Altidore’s suspension.
“We’ve lost him for now [but] there’s video footage, I think, of what happened in the tunnel. From my estimation, from I’ve heard, Jozy basically got ambushed in the tunnel, and we’ll see where that goes,” Vanney told reporters after the game.
Kljestan claimed that Altidore pushed him.
“At halftime he shoved me into the wall. I have a clear conscious,” Kljestan said.
Regardless of what occurred, the lack of discipline shown by TFC on the pitch Sunday afternoon is worrying for a team who was the class of MLS during the regular season, and who routinely dominated opponents with their stylish play. Vanney took his players to task for letting their emotions get the better of them, but said it was clear that New York’s intent was to be disruptive right from the get-go. He also suggested that the referee didn’t properly control the match.
Also worrying for TFC was how easily they were thrown off their game by New York, and how they rode their luck for most of the second half. Toronto was made to scramble, and had to hold on for dear life against a surging Red Bulls side. The best team in MLS? Toronto sure didn’t look like it on this game.
Captain Michael Bradley admitted that this wasn’t the prettiest performance, but he felt Toronto was the better side over the two legs.
“Over the course of 180 minutes, we handled things in a really big way, and we deservedly go through [to the Eastern final]. So, quite honestly, I don’t want to hear any other narrative – [after] 180 minutes, we go through,” Bradley stated.
New York coach Jesse Marsch took a different view.
“In two games against the supposed best team in [MLS] history, I thought that we played well both games, dictated the game both games, went after it in a big way and we were a little bit unlucky to come up a little short on a few plays,” Marsch said.
Bradley also lauded his team for how they battled a tough opponent in an ugly match to earn the result that sent them through to the next round.
“We showed real balls tonight, plain and simple. Any other team finds a way to lose the series. [New York] did nothing. They scored a deflected goal, which made the last 30 or 35 minutes tight. But we kept our nerve. We made big plays when we needed to make big plays, and we found a way to go through,” Bradley said.
Bradley also made no apologies for TFC advancing in a less-than-glamorous fashion, recalling how Toronto lost last year’s MLS Cup final despite outplaying Seattle, and the Sounders not registering a single shot on net.
“We found a way to put ourselves through, and that is the only thing this time of year that matters. We were on the other side of it last December, right? … There isn’t one person in the world who is going to guilt us into feeling sorry for advancing the way we did. Not even close,” Bradley offered.
Vanney didn’t make any lineup changes from Monday’s win in New York. Drew Moor (ankle) and midfielder Victor Vazquez (hip) were subbed out with injuries in the first leg, and were considered questionable for this return match, but both players were cleared to play.
The opening 45 minutes was a tense affair that didn’t produce a single shot on goal, but plenty of physical play between the two sides. Altidore and Bradley both dished it out and took it in what was a very chippy battle.
Tensions boiled over late in the half 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 skirmish 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. A dust-up occurred between both teams as they made their way down the tunnel back to the locker room at the end of the half, with players and coaches having to be separated. Altidore and Kljestan received red cards as a result of the fracas, which meant they were tossed from the match and both sides played the remainder of the game with 10 men.
It went from bad to worse for Toronto early in the second half when Daniel Royer’s long-range shot deflected off teammate Bradley Wright-Phillips near the top of the box, and blew by Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono. It was a fluke goal, and Wright-Phillips didn’t know anything about it, but it mattered little to New York who suddenly had the lead.
Bono came up huge moments later, rushing out to smother the ball after Wright-Phillips had been played clear on goal with a deft back-heeled pass. Had Wright-Phillips finished off that chance, New York probably would have won the series.
“We can say that [save] is the difference. That and maybe the Giovinco free kick goal [in the first leg], but Bono had a great series,” Marsch conceded.
TFC was clearly rattled, as the ascendant visitors laid siege upon their penalty area looking for the second goal that would have won them the series.
Substitute Jonathan Osorio appeared to score to give Toronto some added insurance, but the Canadian’s goal was disallowed as he was judged to have pushed off against a New York defender in the buildup. Vazquez also scored off a free kick, but it was waived off as the ref said the Spaniard took it too quickly.
“They should feel like they escaped because they did. It’s not whether they feel like that or not, they have to move on and ultimately survive. They accomplished the goal. Again, I think that we are a little bit unlucky in this series not to come out with more. But congratulations to Toronto, I don’t want to take anything away from them,” Marsch said.