By Sean Hartnett
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All of the chatter ahead of the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals suggested the Red Bulls would throw the kitchen sink at mighty Toronto FC.
Jesse Marsch’s men had been at their best during the regular season when they executed his high-pressing, counter-attacking system as designed.
The Red Bulls needed the kind of 90-minute intensity they displayed in the 4-0 rout of the Chicago Fire in the knockout round. They had to reproduce it against a much tougher opposition. After all, Toronto FC came into the playoffs off claiming the Supporters’ Shield, breaking the all-time MLS points record, tying for the second-most goals in league history, and boasting the second-best goal differential.
Any slip-up or loss of concentration by the Red Bulls would be pounced on by Toronto’s lethal attacking trident of Jozy Altidore, Victor Vazquez, and Sebastian Giovinco.
Yet despite having every reason in the world to do all the things mentioned above, the Red Bulls didn’t quite execute the way they had hoped during Monday night’s 2-1 loss at Red Bull Arena.
The Red Bulls learned that you cannot give Toronto an inch, because last season’s MLS Cup runner-up has turned into a clinical force that can make any opponent pay for its mistakes.
As a result of Monday’s failures, New York has to go to hostile BMO Field In Toronto on Sunday and try to erase a daunting deficit.
It only took eight minutes for Toronto to find a breakthrough against a Red Bulls backline that was far too generous. Altidore slid down the right wing and skinned defender Damien Perrinelle before sending in a cross that keeper Luis Robles could only parry. Vazquez latched on to the loose ball and finished with aplomb. Altidore was the star of the first half, looking like a threat every time he received the ball.
Toronto appeared poised to enter the break with the lead after a dominant 45 minutes, but the Red Bulls were handed a slice of fortune in stoppage time. Bradley Wright-Phillips was brought down in the box by Drew Moor and New York was awarded a penalty. It was a contentious decision that Toronto supporters and neutrals alike would describe as “soft.” Regardless, Daniel Royer coolly drove the ball down the middle, fooling keeper Alex Bono to level the match.
While the Red Bulls came out energized and fought hard in the second half, a moment of brilliance from Giovinco in the 72nd minute proved to be the difference. Michael Murillo fouled Giovinco outside the box and then the Italian star hit an expert curler from about 25 yards out that Robles had no chance to stop.
Just before the final whistle, Tyler Adams floated a testing cross into Toronto’s box that forced Bono had to make an excellent save on a Kemar Lawrence header. Earlier, Bono made a quick-reaction stop on Wright-Phillips and then sprawled to keep out Gonzalo Veron.
Incredibly, New York outshot Toronto 12-6 and owned 64.6 percent of possession, but it was the visitors’ quality and decisiveness that shined through. Following the match, Marsch spoke of his displeasure at New York’s performance, hinting at tactical and personnel changes and describing the second leg as “a mountain to climb.”
Only a clinical, error-free performance in Sunday’s match will give the Red Bulls a chance of turning the tide. Indeed, they have a mountain to climb.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey