Red Bulls Are Confident, Not Cocky, for Series Against Toronto

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cup logoWHIPPANY, N.J. — A four-game streak without a loss can do wonders for any team’s confidence, not to mention a 4-0 victory on the road in a knockout playoff game.

That’s where the New York Red Bulls now find themselves — somewhere between confident and immensely wary as they prepare for Monday night’s first game in their Major League Soccer Eastern Conference semifinal series against top-seeded and marauding Toronto FC.

“In general, it’s always a balancing act of being confident, but not overconfident,” Coach Jesse Marsch said after training on Saturday. “Staying on the edge, to still have nerves, to still have urgency, to still have hunger — that’s always important. But getting the balance right is never easy. I think the group is in a spot where they get it, and it makes it easier for me.

“That said, I’m very confident, but I also know that with one little slip up here or there is what it comes down to often. It takes some luck, some good bounces. I think that we’ve been operating on a thin line of success and failure, and we’ve managed to make that line a little bit thicker and now hopefully we can live on positive side of the line. We will get tested on a major level, and that’s what makes it fun.”

The Red Bulls last loss came in Toronto, 4-2, on Sept. 30. Since then, New York is 3-0-1, outscoring the opposition by 9-1. The Red Bulls, of course, need to concern themselves with TFC’s dynamic and potent triumvirate of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore (15 goals) and Sebastian Giovinco (16).

“When those guys play they try to take up bigger role, which we will expect,” defender/midfielder Kemar Lawrence said. “All around they are a very good team. If I remember the last game in Toronto what’s his name scored three goals on the weak side.”

Lawrence was referring to Justin Morrow‘s hat trick. Morrow and Victor Vasquez each chipped in with eight goals during the regular season.

While the Reds won the Supporters’ Shield as the league’s top team during the regular season and set the record for most points (69), Toronto eased toward the end of the regular season with an 11-game unbeaten streak (8-0-3) from July 5 through Sept. 16. Then TFC dropped two straight before closing out the 34-game schedule with two wins and a draw.

In the current MLS playoff format, the two-game, total-goals series (away goals are the tiebreaker) begins at the home of the lower seed, a setup that has tripped up the higher seed with shocking regularity — just ask the Red Bulls, who finished in first place the last two years but failed to advance to the title game.

“Of course the goal is to come out and win and post a shutout at home, that’s the best case,” Sacha Kljestan said. “In the end a draw in first leg is not a bad result. Things can get thrown on their head the first few minutes. I remember playing at Columbus [in 2015] when they scored nine seconds into the game. Down, 1-0, it changes the whole series. You just try to get out 1-1 at worst, 1-0, and take it to second leg. But 2-0 was the backbreaker.”

The Red Bulls won the return match, 1-0, but went out, 2-1 on aggregate.

From all appearances, the Red Bulls appear to be — appear to be — firing on all cylinders. The club’s system of using a three-man backline with Tyler Adams and Lawrence playing basically as wingers, has energized the team and injected an element of danger on the flanks that might have been lacking at other times.

“We’ve been trying to utilize our player personnel in the right way, so we still play with our core concepts in place,” Marsch said. “But it’s just a tweak tactically with the roles on the field so we put guys in positions to succeed. It’s been fun, that part’s been fun and I think the guys have enjoyed it.”