By Sean Hartnett
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The Red Bulls’ season is over, but they didn’t go down without a fight.
New York went toe-to-toe with Supporters’ Shield winner Toronto FC on Sunday night and narrowly missed out on pulling off a major upset. Though the Red Bulls won Leg 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and finished even on aggregate 2-2 over the two matches, they were eliminated via an away goals tiebreaker.
Ahead of the semifinals, few experts backed the Red Bulls to seriously challenge Toronto, which broke the all-time MLS regular season points record. After the first leg was dominated by Toronto, New York out forth a spirited effort at BMO Stadium, one of if not the most difficult place for an opposing team in MLS.
Sunday’s match was a testy affair that saw Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan and Toronto forward Jozy Altidore sent off for violent conduct during a halftime tunnel altercation.
Back in the 33rd minute, Kljestan shoved Altidore and the 6-foot-1 forward went to ground dramatically. Kljestan motioned with his hands the diving signal. Both players received yellow cards for unsporting behavior.
After the match, Kljestan claimed that Altidore shoved him into a wall. Toronto head coach Greg Vanney told reporters that Altidore was confronted by as many as six members of the Red Bulls. Altidore tweeted directly at Kljestan, but quickly removed the tweet.
The lone goal of Leg 2 was scored by Bradley Wright-Phillips in the 53rd minute on a redirection of Daniel Royer’s shot. As the Red Bulls pushed unsuccessfully for a second goal that would have sent them to the Eastern Conference finals against Columbus, they were foiled repeatedly by Toronto keeper Alex Bono, who picked up where he left off in Leg 1.
To push a formidable Toronto against the ropes should be viewed as a real feather in the cap for the Red Bulls, who have encouraged youth under the direction of head coach Jesse Marsch.
Versatile midfielder Tyler Adams and defender Aaron Long are the prototypes for what Marsch is trying to achieve through the system. During Leg 1, Adams put on a dominant performance at right back. He was a constant threat down the wing and assisted on Kljestan’s goal.
During Leg 2, Marsch opted to shift to a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Adams tucked in behind strikers Gonzalo Veron and Wright-Phillips. Contrary to the traditional advanced midfielder role, Adams’ job was to shadow and disrupt Michael Bradley and the move worked like a charm. Adams’ influence limited Bradley to the fewest touches he’s had all season and Toronto’s one shot on target was another season low.
Long was a steely presence at the heart of New York’s central defense and kept star forward Sebastian Giovinco quiet throughout Leg 2.
Though Long was drafted by the Portland Timbers and later signed with the Seattle Sounders, he did not make an appearance for the senior side of either club. Long went on trial with the Red Bulls in 2016 and eventually earned a contract with the club’s youth team. His patience and hard work with the reserve team afforded him the chance to break into the Red Bulls starting XI in 2017 and he has since become one of Marsch’s most trustworthy players.
The successes of 18-year-old Adams, 24-year-old midfielder Sean Davis, and 25-year-old Long is proof that clubs don’t always have to lure high-profile, high-earning superstars in order to achieve success.
Adams, Davis, and Long have established themselves as mainstays. If the Red Bulls can keep the youth-to-first team pipeline flowing, there will be brighter days ahead in Harrison, New Jersey.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey