Over the course of 34 games, good teams are always going to have a stinker or two. Games where they just don’t have it, where their legs are tired or the players just aren’t mentally focused.
If they occur early in the season they are usually easy to overcome. If they occur late in the season, like the dud the Red Bulls produced Wednesday night in Toronto, it can mean the difference of playing MLS Cup in your building or someone else’s.
The 2-1 loss to Toronto FC before 18,143 at BMO Field did not undo all the great things they have done this year. What it did do is erase any margin for error over the final two games.
Now it’s no longer win-out and claim the Supporters’ Shield. With FC Dallas beating the Vancouver Whitecaps, 2-0, Wednesday night, the Western Conference leaders tied the Red Bulls (16-10-6) with 54 points apiece. Both have 16 wins, which is the first tiebreaker if they are equal on points at the end of the season.
The Red Bulls, however, hold the next tiebreaker – goal differential – by four goals, so they not only have to win their final two games, but maintain the goal margin as well.
“We lacked a lot of urgency, desire, the ability to pick up second balls, ability to fight and the turf played very fast tonight and it was hard to get the game under control,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “What it came down to was who was able to pick up all the loose balls, who was able to grind out the plays, and we came in second so many times tonight.
“So credit to Toronto, but very disappointing from us because this is the first time all year I feel this has been the case, so at this point in the season to not understand what big games are like, it's disappointing from us.
“I would not single any one person out tonight, I would single out everybody! I would say that every single guy that started tonight was not good enough, 11 guys were not good enough, and it led to our downfall.”
It was a great day all around in Toronto Wednesday night. Not only did the Blue Jays advance to the American League Championship Series, but Toronto FC qualified for the playoffs for the first time in its nine-year history.
“I’m excited, I’m relieved, I’m a lot of things,” coach Greg Vanney said. “We put a lot of work to getting here. I think the last four games (all wins) have been outstanding for us. We have nice momentum right now. I thought we played excellent today. It was kind of a gutsy playoff feel to it, where the game wasn’t perfect in its flow and rhythm. It was two teams sort of scrappy.
“We made the plays that we needed to make to win the game. I’m proud of the effort the guys put out there and, really, the overall performance. We’re really proud to pull three points, to move up into second place, because one of our goals is to keep pushing forward and get as high as we can, and if we can squeeze that first bye and play at home, we’d be very happy with that.”
Toronto started the game with its three key players – Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco – on the bench. Bradley (groin) never got up. Altidore did, but that was only to head to the locker room after receiving a red card in the 34th minute for abusive language toward referee Fotis Bazakos.
Giovinco, despite flying in from Rome Wednesday morning after playing for Italy in its final European Championship qualifier, entered the game in the 71st minute and likely locked up league MVP honors with a goal of the year candidate seven minutes later.
Taking a pass from Jonathan Osorio on the left, Giovinco cut around Red Bulls defender Sal Zizzo, cut back to his left to avoid midfielder Felipe as Zizzo fell to the ground, started to move to his right, saw midfielder Dax McCarty and changed direction again. Cutting to his left to avoid McCarty and defender Ronald Zubar, Giovinco then unleashed a 15-yard shot that ripped into the far-side netting for a 2-0 lead in the 78th minute.
“Of course this was a really important game for the team, the city, and the club, and I knew it,” Giovinco said. “I just tried to be available for selection. I also wanted to play because I am feeling good. (The goal) was a nice way to celebrate because the Blue Jays have advanced in the playoffs. It was a nice thing to do.”
Except for a header by midfielder Mike Grella that bounced just wide of the right post off a Sacha Kljestan cross in the 59th minute, the Red Bulls had done little offensively all game. But they made the final few minutes of regulation – and the six minutes of stoppage time – meaningful after Shaun Wright-Phillips scored his first MLS goal in the 86th minute.
Zizzo crossed the ball from the right toward the center of the box, but it was headed away by Toronto defender Josh Williams. The ball came out to Wright-Phillips just outside the box on the left, and the midfielder drove a half-volley just inside the near post.
“I wouldn’t say we were out of sync,” Kljestan said. “I just think we were a bit late to second balls, a bit late for our 50-50 tackles, and Toronto got the better of us and they were a bit more up for the challenge tonight.
"The conditions tonight were a fast pitch and it was a bit windy. Evidently, Toronto wanted to slow the game down and we wanted to speed it up and wanted to play fast. A difficult game tonight and a bad result for us, but a couple games left to get on the right foot headed to the playoffs.”
With Toronto pumped up for the game with the opportunity to make the playoffs, and with the city going crazy with the Blue Jays playing a few miles away, once Herculez Gomez scored in the 51st minute, you had the feeling the Red Bulls could be in trouble.
Defender Jackson sent a ball into the box from the right toward Gomez. Zubar was in perfect position to clear it, but failed to do so and it slipped under his foot. The ball bounced up to Gomez, who controlled it with his chest before beating Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles from in close for his first goal with the club.
“That pretty much sums it up,” Robles said. “We were slow to react to a lot of second balls, in a sense they pressed us and did pretty well with that, but for the first 80 minutes until we got the goal everything was a step too slow, whether it was the ball that we were playing or our reactions.”
So a rare poor performance by the Red Bulls happened to come at a crucial time, but it did not derail their season. Two points from the final two games will win the Eastern Conference, and a win Sunday over the Philadelphia Union in the final regular-season game at Red Bull Arena, will make everyone forget about the dud in Toronto.
All is not lost.
“Well, it is good that we have a quick turnaround, so we had better get ourselves straight and get our minds straight as we have lot to play for,” Marsch said. “We need to physically get through the next few days and get ready for another huge game on Sunday.”