Two high-profile clubs loaded with decorated veterans, postseason experience and international pedigree combined to put on an MLS Cup playoff circus for the ages on Sunday afternoon in Toronto.
After 90 minutes of petulance, immaturity and odd bounces at rainy BMO Field, the 10-man New York Red Bulls defeated 10-man Toronto FC, 1-0, thanks to an accidental goal from Bradley Wright-Phillips. But the setback wasn’t enough to keep the hosts from their second straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals. TFC’s 2-1 win in last week’s semifinal opener at New York helped see the Supporters Shield winner through, thanks to the away goals tiebreaker.
The Reds’ advancement was expected, but Sunday’s theater of the absurd certainly wasn’t. Here are three thoughts from a strange day in Toronto.
Odd bounces, behavior steal the show
There definitely was something in the air. Sunday’s game was chippy early, and then just after the half-hour mark, it got ridiculous. The silliness started with an unnecessary, hard and late tackle by Sebastian Giovinco, of all people, on New York midfielder Tyler Adams. The whistle blew, and TFC’s Jozy Altidore immediately stepped in to confront and admonish Adams, whose sin was unclear.
Players gathered, protested and postured, and then somehow New York captain Sacha Kljestan and Altidore came together. Kljestan gave his USA teammate a light shove as the distance between them disappeared, and Altidore—one of the biggest men on the field—hit the turf dramatically. Referee Chris Penso cautioned them both and the game continued.
Neither player came out for the second half. ESPN’s cameras showed New York coach Jesse Marsch and defender Aaron Long involved in some kind of fracas in the tunnel, but apparently, Kljestan and Altidore were at the center of it. Both were ejected.
NYRB leveled the aggregate score on a 40-yard shot by midfielder Daniel Royer that bounced in off Wright-Phillips, and Toronto had a late goal called back—it would’ve been an own goal on goalkeeper Luis Robles—on an offside call.
In the 80th minute, Giovinco chased Penso after getting dispossessed deep in the New York end and was shown a yellow card for dissent. It wasn’t the first time the Italian lost his cool on Sunday, and this time it cost him. It was Giovinco’s second yellow of the series—the first was for time wasting—and he’ll now be suspended alongside Altidore for the opener of the conference finals.
There were storylines and subplots galore and plenty of drama, but this is a game and a series that will be remembered for events that had little to do with soccer. And they’re events short-handed TFC (21-6-9) might regret when the playoffs resume.
New York makes it close
The Red Bulls (16-13-8) have suffered more than any team’s fair share of playoff disappointment, but the expectations were different this time around. Marsch introduced some younger talent, like Adams, and New York qualified for the postseason as the sixth and final team in the East. After an overwhelming win over Chicago in the knockout round, March’s squad faced the top seed in rare position—with no pressure and nothing to lose.
“We are now like the 1980 [Olympic] hockey team times five,” Marsch said after losing the semifinal opener.
Apart from whatever Kljestan did to get sent off, New York handled the occasion relatively well on Sunday. Marsch mixed things up, sending his team out in a rare 4-4-2 with Adams behind Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Verón instead of on the wing, and Kljestan and Royer running behind him. TFC found their way through on a couple of occasions early—both Altidore and Giovinco had good first-half looks—but New York never let the hosts establish much possession or momentum.
The visitors’ go-ahead goal in the 53rd minute was credited to Wright-Phillips—it was his 100th for the club—and the Englishman nearly gave his side the aggregate lead when Adams played him through in the 62nd. But TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono rushed out and made an outstanding save.
In the end, the Red Bulls held TFC to only one shot on target and became only the second visitor to win at BMO Field this year. It was a decent performance, and it will not go down on the list of New York playoff chokes. But it still wasn’t enough to move on.
Trying times for Altidore
Altidore emerged from the first leg as a sympathetic character after the abuse he suffered for his role in the USA’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup reportedly crossed the line at Red Bull Arena. Altidore said his religion (he’s a Jehovah’s Witness) was raised by a fan toward the end of the first leg.
Altidore told the Toronto Sun, “There were comments being said that my beliefs have no place in this country. It’s ridiculous.”
During the week, TFC coach Greg Vanney filed a complaint with MLS and told reporters that ahead of Sunday’s decider, “Jozy is focused. If nothing else a little more motivated, which is a good thing for us.”
Altidore’s motivation wasn’t channeled properly, however. He came close to giving TFC the lead in the 10th minute. The forward ran onto a pass from Víctor Vázquez, held off a New York defender and slipped his shot across the face of goal and just wide of the left post. But everything after that was a disaster—the confrontation with Adams, the showdown and flop next to Kljestan, and then the halftime tunnel red card. Altidore, who turns 28 on Monday, now will have to hope that he’s suspended for only the opener of the conference finals. MLS surely will investigate and rule on the events.
It’s a sad, bewildering turn for a player who was riding a whole lot higher just a few weeks ago. First the World Cup failure, and now a potentially significant and unnecessary blow to TFC’s championship hopes.