Red Bulls Dig Themselves a Playoff Hole

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

cup logoHARRISON, N.J. — Goalkeeper Luis Robles has been a rock between the pipes for the New York Red Bulls. He has played in more than 170 consecutive league matches and more than 200 straight over all.

But on Monday night at Red Bull Arena, Robles stood before his locker like the standup guy he is and accepted some of the blame of his team’s 2-1 loss to Toronto FC in the first leg of the team’s Major League Soccer Eastern Conference semifinals series. The return match in the two-game, total-goals series (away goals are the tiebreaker) is scheduled to be played at BMO Field on Sunday afternoon.

“We’re home and if you concede first, you lose the advantage,” Robles said. “We were punished in two situations. I was a bit timid on the first goal.”

That was by Victor Vázquez only eight minutes into the match. Allowing that first goal did not augur well for New York, which is now 5-12-1 this year when yielding the first goal. Amazingly, the Red Bulls walked off the field at halftime in a 1-1 tie after Daniel Royer converted a penalty kick after Bradley Wright-Phillips was fouled, softly, by Drew Moor.

We have a bad first half and walk into the lockerroom, 1-1,” Red Bulls Coach Jesse Marsch said. “It wasn’t the best match for us, but you still have a lot to play for. At that point, you feel you can gather some momentum.”

But Toronto was able to thwart any Red Bulls momentum by parking the bus for much of the second half, allowing the Red Bulls to monopolize possession while goalkeeper Alexander Bono did his job by thwarting the Red Bulls when called upon.

“The game was played on their terms, right; they sat back, they let us have the ball, they waited for turnovers, they went on the counter, and we fed into that, as well,” Marsch said. “We didn’t recognize what was happening quick enough.”

Fifteen minutes into the second half, Royer lofted a perfectly weighted ball to Wright-Phillips in the penalty area. But Wright-Phillips could not get the ball out of his feet, only managing a weak shot that was pushed for a corner. Minutes later Gonzalo Verón came on for Sean Davis and quickly had a chance to score when he settled a corner kick for a point-blank shot at Bono that was saved.

Then … disaster.

Toronto cobbled together a counter in the 72nd minute that left Sebastian Giovinco with the ball and a clear idea of what he had to do — draw a foul just outside the Red Bulls penalty area. With Robles struggling to place his defensive wall and defender Michael Amir Murillo caught in no-man’s land, Giovinco curled his kick just over the jumping defenders in the wall and inside the near post. It was his seventh goal on a free kick this year. His six in the regular season are a league record.

“We had a plan to have Murillo drop to the near post, but he wasn’t there,” Sacha Kljestan said. “He didn’t drop. It’s the little things, and it annoys me. If he’s there he heads the ball out. These are the details that make a difference in the playoffs.”

New York kept pressing for the equalizer and efforts by Verón, Wright-Phillips and Kemar Lawrence came close, but not close enough.

The loss ended the Red Bulls four-game unbeaten streak and was a bookend of sorts to the team’s most recent loss, which came in a 4-2 game at Toronto on Sept. 30.

“If we had a big hill to climb before, now we have a mountain,” Marsch said. “It’s not supposed to be easy, now we’ve made it more difficult on ourselves. Now we’ve really got nothing to lose.”


Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, two guys who began their professional careers with the MetroStars/Red Bulls, were booed each time they touched the ball as fans showed their feelings about the failure of the United States men’s team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. … Over the past few years, the Red Bulls have failed to score a goal from a direct free kick, and 2017 was no different. By contrast, Toronto has scored on eight direct kicks this year, seven of them by Sebastian Giovinco. … And the Reds have scored 10 goals from outside the penalty area, while New York has but four this year. … Both teams entered the semifinal series undefeated when they led at the half; now the Red Bulls were 7-0-4, Toronto was 16-0-3. … Red Bulls midfielder Felipe owns the odd distinction of the being the team’s leader in being fouled the most  (87) and of committing the most fouls (59).