Eastern Conference Semifinal Preview: Toronto FC versus New York Red Bulls

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Sacha Kljestan (right) has delivered the most corners in MLS this season, with 155. He had a lot of assists too.

by Matt Hoffman

For consecutive years, the New York Red Bulls have soared into the playoffs with the top overall seed, only to have nothing to show for their regular season success losing in the Semifinals and Quarterfinals, respectively.

The Red Bulls are trying a different tack this year and, so far, the results look impressive. As top seeds generally don’t seem to be winning cups–Los Angeles was the last team to win their conference and the Cup in the same year–dropping to the sixth spot may have been a measure of pragmatism.

Playing on the road, New York immediately attacked No.4 Chicago with two good looks at goal in the first two minutes. While they were initially denied, Chicago was rattled and 15 minutes into the match, New York had a two goal league en route to a 4-0 win. It would have been the most lopsided playoff match ever had Vancouver not eviscerated the San Jose Earthquakes mere hours later.

It wasn’t the margin that was so impressive about New York’s win. Rather it was the “fearlessness” as head coach Jesse Marsch put it. That it was Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan who created those goals should come as no surprise. Both players have been excellent. Moreover, both were team goals that started with playing the ball in dangerous areas and individual players demonstrating incredible poise and individual talent to finish off those chances.

Those same skills will be necessary if the Red Bulls are going to get past Toronto. As impressive as New York was in one game, Toronto had been displaying these sorts of skills all season long breaking a long standing record for the most points in a season.

The series kicks off in New York where the Red Bulls are 10-2-2 all-time against Toronto FC in league play. Recent form suggests otherwise; New York had had an eight-game home undefeated streak against Toronto that stretched back to the 2009 season until Toronto’s 2-0 win in March 6, 2016.

“You can make an argument that having the home game first sets the tone for the series so it’s time to put your money where our mouth is,” Marsch said. “Toronto is a very good team and the reason why we haven’t beaten them is because they’re a very good team.”

Indeed, Toronto creates match up nightmares for any team. The Chicago win was the result of a home team bombing numbers forward. With Toronto’s forward pairing, there’s little need to do that.

Few teams can push their fullbacks up as much as they like when Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore demand so much attention. Even if New York were to take that risk, it’s quite possible that Toronto’s 5-man backline effectively nullify chance creation from the flanks.

“Offensively they’ll be tough,” said Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles. “Giovinco and Jozy, they’re a handful and then you look at the guys who feed them the ball and it’s not easy to be aware of those guys all the time,” Robles said. “That’s going to be the trick. If we can maintain the same positional awareness, maintain aggressive defense which can help us press up the field so we can take chances.”

Short of a win, a scoreless draw would be a good scenario. The Red Bulls could walk into Toronto with the score leveled and gain the advantage of road goals. In order to bring that about, the Red Bulls must keep the ball and that highlights the importance of Kljestan keeping the ball and a team-wide effort to avoid giving up the ball in dangerous areas.

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