HARRISON, N.J. – Despite Toronto FC’s 2-1 away victory over the New York Red Bulls in the Leg 1 of the clubs’ Eastern Conference Semifinals series on Monday night, TFC coach Greg Vanney doesn’t believe there’s any danger of his team getting complacent in Sunday’s return fixture.
“This league is unforgiving, the playoffs are unforgiving,” Vanney said after Monday’s victory. “We, a year ago, lost in the final. We brought 19 guys back from that team and every one of those guys remembers exactly what it was like the day that game ended and we didn’t do what we wanted to do. That’s been their motivation all year.
“I think as we return back to Toronto, there won’t be a sense of taking their foot off the gas.”
It may also be easier to keep level heads after TFC were more ruthless than they were dominant in a match decided by yet another of Sebastian Giovinco’s sensational free kicks.
Perhaps partly because the visitors gained such an early lead after Victor Vazquez’s eighth-minute opener, Toronto took a rare counterattacking posture for much of the match. And for much of the second half, the Red Bulls looked the more likely team to find a winner.
“Today was a very tough game,” Vanney said on Monday night. “It was not like we came out and, by any stretch of the imagination, were blowing the doors off of it.”
But goalkeeper Alex Bono made crucial late saves on Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kemar Lawrence in his first career playoff start, and his defensive unit kept playmaker Sacha Kljestan generally out of rhythm. And when it was over, a top-seeded TFC side that at times made the regular season look easy had the kind of gritty victory worthy of a heroic underdog.
“You can’t think that everything you do in the regular season is going to translate on the same way in these type of nights,” said Reds captain Michael Bradley. “Especially in the first leg on the road against a team like that, you know it’s going to be physical, you know they’re going to do so much to try to make the game fast and hectic and, do whatever they can to disrupt things. So I thought we handled it in a good way.”
Vanney said his team’s aggregate lead won’t impact his evaluation on whether and in what role to play Vazquez (abdomen) and Drew Moor (ankle) after both picked up injuries and departed early during the first leg.
“It’s going to be more on their condition than the result,” he said.
In the context of Toronto’s recent past, leaving absolutely nothing to chance is the only sensible approach. After losing on penalties in last year’s MLS Cup final, then setting a record by earning 69 points during the 2017 regular season, few teams have faced more pressure to win a title over the league’s history.
“There is good pressure, there’s a way to handle it and not get too excited or too high,” Bono said. “We came here knowing there will be a tough game against a good Red Bulls team. So for us to come in and put in a performance in like we did, and just treat it like every other game we played this season, it’s good for us.”