TORONTO – A win on the road with two away goals, but at what cost?
In their first taste of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, Toronto FC were able to come away from the opening leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal against the New York Red Bulls with a 2-1 win, but lost two key pieces in the process.
On Wednesday, it was revealed that both players are 'questionable' heading into Sunday's second leg at BMO Field (3 pm ET; ESPN in the US | TSN1/4, TVAS in Canada).
Head coach Greg Vanney was noncommittal on whether he expected them to be ready for the weekend.
“Both [are] feeling better. They have definitely made progress; a good sign,” he said. “We have a few days. Hope is they continue to progress and that prognosis gets better as we get close.”
Vanney did note that TFC's advantage from the first leg will not be a factor on whether they return.
“If they're ready, then they'll play. We're not going to hold a guy out because [of the circumstances].”
Vazquez was diagnosed with what has been termed a 'pelvic injury' after Felipe appeared to step in with a quasi-hip check that left the Spanish playmaker prone and in pain in the 53rd minute. He tried to shake it off, but could not.
Much was made of the Red Bulls’ tendency to straddle the line between physical and dirty play heading into Leg 1. For Vanney, that play highlighted that tightrope.
“It was a foul,” said Vanney. “The fact that it was not called is mind-boggling.... The PK was a heck of a lot softer than that.”
“Is it dirty? I don't know. There's a fine line between dirty and being physical. I will leave that up for everybody else to decide. Felipe knows what he is doing, stepping in to body block the player. It's the refs' job to call a foul and go from there. In the grand scheme of things, it was a hard-fought game, a playoff game, teams were both battling for every inch on the field.”
Felipe and the Red Bulls did get their comeuppance of sorts later in the match as a rather similar play saw the Brazilian whistled for a foul on Sebastian Giovinco. The Italian duly dispatched the free kick with his customary ease, giving TFC the win and a valuable second away goal with his stunning effort in the 72nd minute.
“That's the way they play,” expanded Vanney. “Try to disrupt the game, create transitions and use them to start their attacks. If you can get your body in position to protect the ball, you draw a foul; if you can move the ball quickly, you can draw a foul. It's not surprising: a player slightly overaggressive in a moment and it cost them.”
Moor suffered an ankle sprain on the play that gave the Red Bulls a lifeline, when he got tangled with Bradley Wright-Phillips atop the TFC box, resulting in a penalty kick. Daniel Royer converted the attempt in first half stoppage-time to pull New York level at 1-1.
“It was a weird step,” said Vanney. “Right as he hit the ground somebody caught a piece of his ankle that shifted him. I couldn't really tell what happened; had to go back in slo-mo to see any real roll.”
Both Vazquez and Moor have been stalwarts for Toronto, appearing in 31 and 25 matches, respectively. Moor is incredibly valuable for his ability to marshal TFC’s backline, while Vazquez has been a true difference maker in the attack.
Vanney called the fact that Vazquez was left off the shortlist for the Newcomer of the Year award “crazy.”
“He's been one of the best players in the league,” said Vanney. “To not be in the discussion is a miss.”
His 16 assists were second-most in the league, behind only Sacha Kljestan; he has eight goals as well. Six of his assists have been game-winners – the most in the league. Five of his goals have been match-clinchers, too – equal with Jozy Altidore for the team lead and tied for third-most in MLS.
In the six matches that Vazquez did not start, Toronto only won half and saw their goals/game drop from 2.3 to 1.7.
“It would be a big blow,” goalkeeper Alex Bono said of Moor and Vazquez’s potential absences. “We have guys that can come in contribute, fill the holes. We've shown that all season: depth is a strong point. Those two guys are crucial, but we have capable guys that can come in, get the job done as well.”
Nick Hagglund did just that on Monday, coming in cold off a second knee injury of the season to put in an impressive half in his first appearance since Aug. 12.
“It's great to have Nick ready,” said Vanney. “We also have Jason [Hernandez], who is super-experienced. Armando [Cooper], [Jonathan] Osorio both came on and were excellent; have been throughout the year.
“I take comfort in the fact that if guys [are] missing we have veteran guys, who have experience, have been in these situations, who can step up and provide a great service to the team.”