Did the Red Bulls provide MLS with the blueprint for derailing Toronto?

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

TFC looked unstoppable for most of 2017. But overheated reactions to New York's provocations have us thinking twice.

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Leg two of Toronto FC’s playoff series with the New York Red Bulls was everything you’d want in a nationally-televised MLS playoff contest. The best regular-season club, steered by two U.S. internationals and a former league MVP, against a scrappy side from the continent’s largest market, all framed by cold and rainy conditions best enjoyed from the pizza-warmed comforts of home.

All that, plus a halftime melee that would have the organizers of professional wrestling nodding in jealous approval. It was all fantastic theater.

Then again, if you are TFC or one of its passionate supporters, fantastic theater isn’t what you’re going for, now is it? That’s the pressure point here: What it means for Toronto going forward.

Toronto FC is a club stacked with first-choice talent, backed with trustworthy depth and guided by a finalist for MLS Coach of the Year in Greg Vanney. All reasons TFC just had one of the best regular seasons in American professional soccer history.

So how is it that TFC needed to squeeze so nervously past the New York Red Bulls, advancing into the Eastern Conference finals against Columbus? It served to create this strange condition where the men of BMO Field progressed dutifully, but managed to ask more questions about themselves than they answered in doing so.

A lot there to like. But …

Afterward, Toronto captain Michael Bradley chose to herald his team’s bravery in facing down obstacles.

To his point, the favorites to take MLS Cup – the Reds are still faves, right? – did show us something about hanging tough in difficult circumstance. Referee Chris Penso did his best to control the disorder than marred the match, but more of the important calls were going New York’s way, frustrating Toronto. Past that, all the weight of expectations fell on TFC, leaving New York the freedom of the carefree pursuers with nothing to lose.

Toronto held its ground, but not convincingly. The prohibitive series favorites, staked with a 2-1 lead and returning home, nearly collapsed spectacularly, hanging on by a soaking wet thread through much of the second half. If Bradley Wright-Phillips had finished his glistening second-half chance, put through by a swell Red Bulls passing sequence on top of TFC’s penalty area, things might look very different today.

The biggest question is about Toronto’s overall mentality, suddenly looking frail. Jozy Altidore lost his cool and was eventually sent off for a halftime skirmish. Sebastian Giovinco looked petulant. Again. Now both will be suspended for the first leg as Toronto meets Columbus for the right to host MLS Cup.

Yes, the chaos that reigned at BMO was largely of the Red Bulls’ making; the visitors sought the clutter of disarray as a strategic initiative, and came preciously close to making it work. But how did Toronto bite so hard at the obvious bait, especially as Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch practically announced they would lay out? Considering what happened a year ago, when TFC was the better team but couldn’t do enough at home in the MLS Cup final against Seattle, you’d think Vanney’s team would be supremely mission focused.

What we saw in Leg 2 against New York was anything but, and it leaves questions for the rest of the playoffs.

Could ‘getting ugly’ be a blueprint for Columbus?

Everyone looks bad here for Leg 2’s mess of misrule, players and officials from both sides. But the least flattering look fell on Altidore, the polarizing U.S. international who gave fuel to the Jozy haters. After the U.S. men’s national team’s spectacular failure, wouldn’t you think he’d be laser-locked on getting his club past the MLS finish line. With Russian 2018 dreams in tatters, it’s what he and Bradley have left to salvage a 2017 to forget.

Altidore embarrassed himself by flailing dramatically beneath Sacha Kljestan’s feather-soft push. Perhaps more video will reveal a more thorough picture of how things escalated inside the tunnel at halftime, but Altidore did himself no favors later as he tweeted further invective toward Kljestan – tweets later deleted but, of course, preserved via the glory of the timely screenshot.

Altidore was a metaphor for a team that completely lost the plot when baited into a more physical match. As a stately U.S. national team elder along with Bradley, he should have immediately acted to calm matters, to re-focus the side rather than pushing things further into the distracting red zone of rage.

Just like Altidore, Giovinco will miss the opening leg of the coming series with Columbus. The Italian star got yellow cards in the series for kicking away a ball on a restart and for childishly screaming and gesturing toward Penso.

Questions can be asked of Vanney, about his role in getting players into the right place mentally. What’s more, as New York took control in the second half, was he slow with his tactical and personnel response? (The addition of Jonathan Osorio and a switch into a 4-4-2 around the 65th minute did help slow the visitors’ momentum.)

Toronto may not be done dealing with fallout of the ridiculous halftime donnybrook, but for now, TFC has more immediate matters – taking on a club that is starting to look and feel like “that team” for 2017, a team of an unlikely but certain destiny.

It seems doubtful that Columbus manager Gregg Berhalter will follow the Red Bulls’ roadmap, to get confrontational, to frustrate the way Felipe and even young Tyler Adams did against Toronto. But to take some elements of the blueprint? That doesn’t seem so far-fetched, especially as TFC’s attack is suddenly low on gas for the first leg, minus Giovinco and Altidore.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Referee Chris Penso: fed up (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Even when he does get back on the field, we can rightly wonder about Giovinco’s ability to deliver. For everything he’s been over three MLS seasons – 55 goals and 37 assists in 86 matches represent gold-standard production – he shrank in last year’s playoffs and wasn’t anything special in Leg 2 against New York.

So, where is his head? And where is Altidore’s? Can Bradley do more to restore focus? Can Vanney get the team back to being proactive, back on the front foot? We thought we knew Toronto, the runaway Supporters’ Shield winner who lost just five times across 34 regular-season contests.

While one game makes not a trend, we now have fresh questions that need answering.

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