TORONTO – "Combative" barely does the ferocity justice.
There was no love lost on Sunday night when Toronto FC and New York City FC met in the opening leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The feistiest game yet in the 2016 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs yielded a 2-0 victory for the home side.
It took barely 30 seconds for the first spark to strike kindling, when both Steven Beitashour and Mikey Lopez barrelled into a challenge – quarter neither asked, nor given – leaving the latter prone in need of treatment.
And the tension would only ratchet up from there, the score knotted at zeros, with so much on the line.
There would be plenty of controversial talking points. There was a possible TFC goal from Justin Morrow in the 51st minute disallowed for an apparent handball on Jozy Altidore. There was a challenge from Lopez on Beitashour in the 58th minute that drew a yellow. Then there was a penalty shout denied in the 62nd minute when Altidore was "manhandled in the box."
Twice the players came together off the ball, for a friendly and frank exchange of, albeit differing, views on this moment or that.
NYCFC saw five yellow cards to TFC's one, half as many as they probably earned.
But perhaps the most-discussed moment came after just 20 minutes or so, when David Villa, star forward for a New York side without Andrea Pirlo or Frank Lampard, appeared to kick out at Armando Cooper after the two clashed repeatedly in midfield.
“I have a ton of respect for David Villa's game. He's a phenomenal player, one of the best in this league,” said Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney, when asked about the incident post-match. “But, there are instances in a game that, regardless of who you are, when you make choices like that ... where a player is defenseless and you take a whack at him from behind.... On any other day, in any other league, that player sees a suspension. It was pretty blatant.”
Vanney stressed that he saw the incident both as it happened, and in a replay. “It's not something that is acceptable in the league," he said. "But, whatever happens happens. If he's on the field, we play; if he's not, we play.“
The fireworks did not end there. Altidore, as the final whistle went, nearly got into a mix up with yet another NYCFC player, displeased at the result.
“It was weird. I don't know what happened,” said Altidore afterwards. “The game ended, I didn't do anything malicious, and he tried to get rough. It's part of the game I guess, sometimes you lose your head, but it was important to keep my cool there.”
Michael Bradley noted that he was proud of how Toronto stuck together and kept as calm as possible. “We, in respectful ways, found the way to let the referee know what we thought," he said. "We didn't lose track of what is important in these games: concentrating on the task at hand, competing. You're wasting time and energy if you're spending too much time worrying about things that are out of your control.”