Red Bulls Win, but Still End Up Losing

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cup logoNo one can question the New York Red Bulls‘ tenacity and commitment, if not their knack for provoking their opponent with an aggressive style turned desperate.

But playoff series are not won by aggression alone and the Red Bulls discovered that the hard way when they defeated Toronto FC, 1-0, in the second leg, tying the total goals series, 2-2. But TFC advanced on away goals in Major League Soccer‘s Eastern Conference semifinal series on Sunday afternoon at BMO Field in Toronto.

The Red Bulls probably deserved a better fate in a match marred by six yellows, two reds, a lot of venomous tackles and a lot of bad tempered displays — but New York’s tough tactics provoked and unnerved Toronto, winner of the Supporters’ Shield as the league’s team during the 34-game regular season. Still, the team that lost in last year’s MLS Cup final held on to advance to the conference finals two weeks hence.

Red Bulls Coach Jesse Marsch made two changes to the lineup that started Monday’s game (a 2-1 loss at Red Bull Arena): Gonzalo Verón joined Bradley Wright-Phillips up front, Sean Davis went to the substitute’s bench, and Kemar Lawrence dropped from winger to left-side defender on a four-man back line that also included Damien Perrinelle, Michael Amir Murillo and Aaron Long.

The changes also thrust Tyler Adams, 18, into a creative role in midfield as the Red Bulls went to a 4-4-2, a system that hasn’t served them well this season. It’s a change Adams embraced with gusto. But the impact on offense went only so far — neither Verón nor Wright-Phillips produced a dangerous scoring opportunity in the first hour or so.

Referee Chris Penso had his hands full from the get-go as the match opened physical and chippy. It boiled over in the 35th minute when Sebastian Giovinco sent Adams to the turf with a hard and unnecessary foul. Jozy Altidore stepped in, embraced and jawed with Adams as players scurried around them. As things seemed to settle down, Sacha Kljestan lightly bumped an already agitated Altidore, who crumpled to the turf as if hit by lightning. Both received yellow cards.

According to an initial report by ESPN, Marsch confronted TFC Coach Greg Vanney in the tunnel as the teams left at halftime. According to the report, the two coaches had to be separated by players and officials. But it was the players who scuffled in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms. Then, neither Altidore nor Kljestan took the field for the second half after they each received a second yellow card for “violent conduct.” Altidore will be suspended for the first game of the next round; as will Giovinco who received his second yellow of the playoffs later in the game.

For all the contretemps in the first 45 minutes and moments after, the Red Bulls had few good chances, needing to win by two goals to advance to face the Columbus Crew in the next round.

Toronto's BMO Field. Photograph by ESPNFC

Toronto’s BMO Field.                                                                      Photograph by ESPNFC

Altidore had the game’s first chance inside 10 minutes. Víctor Vázquez picked up a ball at midfield and led Altidore with a well-placed pass as TFC’s big American striker held off Long. Altidore’s shot, however, skipped wide of Luis Robles and the far post.

In the 13th minute, Vázquez took a pass near the end line and slid a pass across the face of the goal that was tipped by Robles and then Lawrence with Giovinco lurking dangerously at the near post.

With time running down in the first half, it was Vázquez again with a pass to Giovinco. He broke into the Red Bulls’ area for a shot that appeared to be tipped by Robles, but went for a goal kick.

In the rain less than 10 minutes into the second half, Long stepped up to intercept a Michael Bradley pass. Long slipped a pass to Daniel Royer for a shot from 35 yards took a deflection off Wright-Phillips and went past a flat-footed Alexander Bono — cutting TFC’s lead on aggregate and away goals.

The Red Bulls had a golden chance to turn the series on its head in the 62nd minute, but Bono denied Wright-Phillips. Felipe passed to Adams, whose terrific controlled backheel pass sent Wright-Phillips in alone.

Toronto thought it scored the clincher in the 77th. A Giovinco cross bounced at the far post and slipped past Robles as Jonathan Osorio and Adams jostled. Penso called Osorio for the foul.