How it happened: Altidore, Kljestan incident overshadows TFC playoff march

TORONTO—Six yellow cards and two reds later, one side emerged when the dust settled at BMO Field on Sunday night.

Toronto FC moves on to Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Championship against Columbus Crew SC, advancing past the New York Red Bulls on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate draw.

The Red Bulls won 1-0 on the night, but could not overcome the two away goals TFC nabbed in the opening leg on Monday at Red Bull Arena.

A tight affair from the off, events turned ill-tempered come the 33rd minute when Sebastian Giovinco went into a tackle on Tyler Adams, drawing a crowd.

It only escalated from there.

Both Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore were shown yellows for a coming together in the ensuing scrum that saw Altidore hit the deck in dramatic fashion.

“The precipice was the double yellow,” said Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch. “Giovinco was getting a piece of our guys all game, frankly the ref was letting it happen.”

Kljestan explained his role: “[Jozy] went to stand over Adams; intimidate him. I came in, asked him to stop. Then he got in my face. I pushed him back … he fell down fairly easily in my opinion.”

With the halftime whistle blown, both sides made their way down the tunnel and that's where the kindling caught flame.

“I was late coming in, so, no, I didn't see the initial part of it,” said Toronto captain Michael Bradley. “My first thought was 'What are they even doing here?'”

“Their locker room is in a totally separate part of the stadium … They shouldn't be anywhere close to [ours],” continued Bradley. “Somehow there are 10 of their players and a bunch of their staff 5 feet from our locker room. Right away the red flags go up – what's going on?”

So what happened?

“From my estimation, from what I've heard,” said Toronto coach Greg Vanney. “Jozy basically got ambushed in the tunnel. He was followed in, confronted. He turned around and my understanding is the next thing you know there are four, five, six Red Bulls people rushing towards him at the same time.”

Kljestan did not agree.

“At halftime [Jozy] shoved me into the wall. I have a clear conscience. I don’t feel like I deserved a red card. It’s a pretty helpless feeling, to not be able to play in the second half because of that.”

Altidore offered his version to TSN, while attending the Toronto Raptors game at Air Canada Centre shortly after the MLS match:

"He tried to come and get at me from behind, choked and pushed me," Altidore said. "And he found out the hard way that he shouldn't do something like that."

Said TFC defender Drew Moor: “I've never seen anything like it. Usually it's just a quick left from them and that's it. By the time I got past where they are supposed to turn, their entire team was inside our part of the tunnel.”

“I don't think there were any punches,” continued Moor, surprised that red cards were produced. “It was a lot of grabbing and talking … Two teams with emotions running high, the tempers boiled over a little bit. It died down pretty quick when I got in there.”

For Red Bulls 'keeper Robles, who's started more games than anyone in MLS since 2013, this was a natural extension of raised stakes: “The playoffs exaggerate it; they bring a different element, more emotion because there’s a lot on the line. They want to win as badly as we do. The way that it went down tonight was a little strange.”

With the Conference Championship and Crew SC now the only obstacle between Toronto and a return to the MLS Cup Final, Vanney's ultimate assessment of the hotly contested moment proved terse: “The game is over, the series is over. We move on; they don't. I'm going to leave it at that.”