HARRISON, N.J. — The New York Red Bulls were one of the best teams in Major League Soccer at home last year, and also boasted the highest-scoring attack in the league. With all of their attacking pieces back for the start of 2016, there was little reason to think they would have trouble scoring in their season opener against a Toronto FC defense that was playing its first match since being almost completely rebuilt this winter.
That new-look TFC defense started the season with the kind of performance that coach Greg Vanney could only dream of, shutting down the Red Bulls attack and capitalizing on some second-half opportunities to earn a 2-0 victory and the club's first win at Red Bull Arena.
Playing the first of eight straight road matches while the club's stadium, BMO Field, undergoes renovations, Toronto FC frustrated and stifled the Red Bulls offense. The unit made it tough for New York's vaunted midfield to create chances, and kept dangerous strike Bradley Wright-Phillips under wraps. The Red Bulls couldn't find a goal, and when Sebastian Giovinco converted a penalty kick and set up an insurance goal with a perfect pass to Marky Delgado, TFC was able to leave Red Bull Arena with a hard-earned victory, and precious three points.
“It’s a great way to start a season,” TFC captain and U.S. national team midfielder Michael Bradley said. “A great three points against, for me, one of the best teams in the league. When you talk about being a good team, and knowing what it’s going to take on certain days to win games, we came through in a big way today and I think we should all be proud of that, in terms of effort, mentality, commitment. We’ve talked a lot in the past few weeks about what it’s going to take for us to be the type of team that we all want."
Toronto FC set out to fluster the Red Bulls attack, playing a system that resembled a 4-5-1 much more than it resembled a 4-3-3. Vanney deployed Jonathan Osorio with Bradley and Will Johnson to form a midfield wall that made it difficult for the Red Bulls to play through the middle. The Red Bulls still created some chances, but managed just one shot on goal, not nearly as many as were expected from the defending Supporters' Shield winners.
"A lot of times you come to the big cities, and the big clubs that have big reputations, and maybe the group, at the sign of some difficulty, kind of folds a little bit and I thought our group didn’t," Vanney said. "There were definitely some times where we were having difficulty in terms of getting pressure and the game wasn’t in our favor, but the group didn’t fold. We stayed together, we stuck with the plan and the intent, and we did that for the long haul and we gave ourselves a chance to win the game."
The reconstructed back four was sturdy in limiting the Red Bulls' chances. Steven Beitashour held down the right back position well, while Drew Moor formed a reliable partnership with Damien Perquis. TFC's entire lineup contributed to halting the Red Bulls. From Giovinco applying pressure up top, to rookie Tsubasa Endoh adding a solid showing defensively in addition to drawing a penalty in the box.
"Everybody talks about the back four defensively, but it’s the whole unit, all 11 guys on the field have this mentality right now that we’re just going to be difficult to play against and difficult to beat," Moor told Goal USA. "That was on show today."
Moor turned in one of several excellent performance by first-year TFC players, along with Steven Beitashour and goalkeeper Clint Irwin. Moor credited the TFC midfield for providing the necessary support to stifle the Red Bulls attack.
"We have an experienced back four certainly, but when you put Michael Bradley and Will Johnson in front of you, who have sat in those positions for a long time, it’s a huge boost," Moor told Goal USA. "It gives us confidence, and not just defensively. You give those guys the ball and they’re going to find the outlet passes, they’re going to find Sebasian, they’re going to find Jonathan Osorio. They’re going to keep possession and relieve a little bit of pressure."
"We have some real veterans across the back line and in the midfield, and coming into New York was something they’ve done in the past and to be able to get a result is telling of the grittiness of this group," Vanney said. "It's just a building block as we move through these eight games on the road."
For a team playing without injured U.S. national team striker Jozy Altidore, and one embarking on a season-defining eight-match road trip, TFC started the 2016 season with the kind of result that could help the club develop into a real winner. Vanney is under pressure to help the big-spending Canadians make the leap from simply middle of the pack to legitimate title contender. As far as Sunday's win was from being pretty, it could be just what the team needs to help deal with a challenging start to the 2016 season.
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