For Red Bulls, Who (Toronto), What (Conference Semis), Where (RBA) … but When?

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cup logoA few things are certain: The New York Red Bulls will face top-seeded Toronto FC in Major League Soccer‘s Eastern Conference semifinals. What is also certain is that the first match of the two-game, home-and-away total goals series will be played at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. And the second game will be in Canada on Nov. 5.

What is not certain is when the game will be played — on Monday, Oct. 30; or on Tuesday, Oct. 31, Halloween Day — thanks to the needs of the league’s “TV partners.”

On Wednesday night in Bridgeview, Ill., the Red Bulls authored perhaps one of their most complete victories in recent memory — getting goals from four players (Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan, Daniel Royer and Gonzalo Verón — to dispatch the host Chicago Fire, 4-0, in the knockout round of the playoffs.

“I could sense that our team was ready to go,” Coach Jesse Marsch said. “I could see the confidence in the group, I could see the clarity so I was excited to see it but I wasn’t surprised. I thought we had to manage certain parts of the game and we survived moments in the beginning of the second half but then we knew then if we could find a way to be dangerous and create a third that means the game would be done. We hung on and we did that and obviously a big victory for our team, our club,
and I am very happy for our guys.”

The Red Bulls, who improved to 3-0 in knockout-round games, escaped a couple of nervous moments early in the match, then struck back for two goals four minutes apart before 12 minutes had passed. Wright-Phillips, wearing his No. 99 jersey, scored his 99th goal for the club in all competitions, in the seventh minute. Kljestan then one-timed a crossing ball from Tyler Adams. Adams, playing on the wing as a defender/midfielder continues to impress with his overall skill and savvy, well beyond his 18 years.

“I feel like I talk about Tyler a lot these days,” Marsch said. “We see him maturing, growing up, developing right before our eyes. It’s a source of pride for everyone on the team, and our belief in Tyler is at the highest level. I thought he dominated that wing, he covered ground, he was dangerous moving forward, he won all his duels, aerial duels, battles, foot races, tackles, he was sharp on the ball, he was fantastic. It was a big night for him and I think he has so much energy in the game that our team feeds off of it. It’s really good for him.”

The Red Bulls will have the weekend to contemplate the next opponent, Toronto FC, which set a record for regular-season points (69). The combatants probably won’t know the schedule for Game 1 until sometime Friday, after the completion of Thursday’s two knockout games. While New York is certain of playing the Reds, New York City FC will play the winner of the Atlanta United-Columbus match.

“Well, we have some time to prepare,” goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “I know it’s not a lot of time but I know the coaching staff is probably on it already. We know that offensively they’ll be tough, [Sebastian] Giovinco and Jozy [Altidore], they’re a handful. And then you look at the guys who feed them the ball and it’s not easy to be aware of those guys all the time. That’s going to be the trick. If we can maintain the same positional awareness, maintain aggressive defense which can help us press up the field so we can take chances. We know it’s going to be a tough one. At this point the amount of playoff experience I have, I figured if we do this thing, we might as well play against the best. Whoever is next, we play them, instead of posturing, we look who we play next.”

The series against Toronto will be another reunion of sorts with former players — both Altidore and Michael Bradley began their careers as teenagers with the club (Jason Hernandez played three games for the MetroStars in 2005). The Red Bulls, perhaps finally, have put to bed the residue of the trade that sent the popular Dax McCarty to Chicago.

“I think the better team won, plain and simple,” McCarty said. “I thought we got outplayed all over the field. I mean, that’s a team that’s been battle-tested in the playoffs now for five, six years. They’ve experienced a lot of hard games, a lot of tough games in the playoffs, they’ve experienced a lot of disappointment in the playoffs. We aren’t quite there yet.”