Two-Legged Eastern Conference Semifinal Begins Monday Or Tuesday

By Sean Hartnett
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The Red Bulls’ two biggest stars delivered under pressure in a tough playoff road atmosphere to send New York to an intriguing Eastern Conference semifinal meeting with Toronto FC. What a night it turned out to be for the visiting Red Bulls, who blitzed the Chicago Fire for four unanswered goals.

Goal-scorer extraordinaire Bradley-Wright Phillips and captain Sacha Kljestan both found the net within the first 11 minutes. From then on, it was smooth sailing for the Red Bulls.

A goalkeeping error by Chicago’s Matt Lampson in the seventh minute gifted the Red Bulls an early 1-0 lead. Wright-Phillips made it look simple, running off the shoulder of the last defender, controlling Damien Perrinelle’s aerial delivery and poking the ball past an unsteady Lampson.

Red Bulls vs. Fire

The Red Bulls’ Michael Murillo and Gonzalo Veron (30) celebrate after Veron scored a goal in an MLS Cup playoff match against the Chicago Fire on Oct. 25, 2017 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kljestan doubled New York’s lead to 2-0 four minutes later. Tyler Adams dribbled past defender Brandon Vincent and swung in a perfect delivery for Kljestan from the wing. Adams put in a workhorse performance up and down the right side of the pitch. The versatile 18-year-old has been a revelation for the Red Bulls, showing an ability to be commanding in any position he is asked to play.

Coach Jesse Marsch’s plan worked to perfection in the first half. The Red Bulls were in complete control throughout the opening 45 minutes. They moved the ball quickly and with confidence. Adams and Kemar Lawrence made constant breakthroughs down the wing and pushed the Fire back on their heels.

Chicago won 53 percent of the first-half possession. When the Red Bulls didn’t have possession, they closed down Chicago vigorously in tandems to win the ball back and created opportunities on the counter attack.

Daniel Royer increased New York’s advantage to an unassailable 3-0 lead in the 71st minute. The Red Bulls won the ball easily from Dax McCarty at midfield and broke in numbers, three against two. Sean Davis slid through an excellent pass in Royer’s path. Royer finished the half turn neatly.

A missed chance by Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic in the 84th minute summed up Chicago’s night. Nikolic was sent clean through by Arturo Alvarez, and Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles strayed far off his line. Nikolic sent a chip shot well wide of the open net. Later on, forward David Arshakyan muffed a great chance in the box during added time.

New York went on to complete a 4-0 victory. Super sub Gonzalo Veron chipped in an 87th-minute goal from a weighted through ball via Kljestan. It was quite the statement from a Red Bulls group that has been described as Jekyll and Hyde throughout the regular season.

Next comes an examination of how good this Red Bulls team can be in the form of a two-leg conference semifinal against Toronto FC. Having captured the Supporters’ Shield, Toronto FC will pose a tremendously difficult test in Round 2. Toronto broke the all-time MLS points record by finishing the regular season with 69 points.

Its 74 goals tied for the second-most in MLS history, and its plus-37 goal differential was also second-best in league history. Kljestan described Toronto’s attacking trio of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez as a “three-headed monster” during a postgame interview with Fox Sports’ Katie Witham.

During the regular season, the trio combined for 39 goals. Vazquez’s 16 assists finished behind only Kljestan. There is an abundance of match-winners and playmakers on both sides, setting up what should be a tasty two-legged affair.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey


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