Uphill battle: Red Bulls face 'desperate' task against Toronto FC in second game

You don’t have to track back that far to see a scoreline by which the Red Bulls can overturn their 2-1 deficit against Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

A year and half ago, in May of 2016, NYRB belted TFC, 3-0. But that game was at Red Bull Arena and since then in four meetings, two have been ties (1-1 and 3-3) and Toronto prevailed, 4-2, on Sept. 30 at home prior to its triumph on Monday.

So there’s a sense that the second game at BMO Field on Sunday (ESPN, ESPN Deportes, MLS Live, 3 p.m.) at BMO Field is a mere formality. Supporters’ Shield winner TFC finished 19 points head of the sixth-place Red Bulls and also has a 2-0 edge in the away-goals tiebreaker.

The Red Bulls need to win at BMO Field, where TFC is 13-1-3 this season, and score at least two goals to have any chance of winning. If the Red Bulls are leading, 2-1, TFC’s only home loss occurred Sept. 20, a 5-3 defeat to archrival Montreal that ended unbeaten streaks (11) and winning streaks (6). Head coach Greg Vanney rested attackers Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez in that match. Not surprisingly, all three were dangerous in the first leg at Red Bull Arena; Vasquez crisply finished a parried Altidore cross for the first goal, and Giovinco nailed the winner with a spectacular free kick.

Yet neither Vazquez nor centerback Drew Moor finished the first leg. Vazquez departed in the 65th minute with a pelvic injury; Moor did not play the second half after suffering an ankle injury at the end of the first half while committing a foul in the box by which NYRB scored its only goal from the penalty spot.

Their status for the second leg is officially “questionable.” Said Vanney to reporters after a Friday training session, “They were able to get through the sections of training that we had hoped. Now we’ll see how they respond. With these injuries, it’s not just about the day of training, but the response afterwards so we know if they can turn around and go.

“Tomorrow’s another day, so we’ll see where they’re at physically. Those injuries can get irritated quickly, but the hope is that they come back tomorrow feeling good.”

In the first leg, Nick Hagglund took Moor’s role as the central pillar in a three-man back line and responded admirably, logging 13 of TFC’s 30 clearances in just 45 minutes of play. Vazquez’s replacement was the more defensive-oriented Jonathan Osorio, so Giovinco played more assertively and with a bold dribble drew the foul. He lined up the free kick and swerved a beauty inside the near post.

As past results between the teams indicate, the Red Bulls have been able to score goals against TFC. On Sunday they need do so and contain Giovinco, Altidore, et al., in a BMO Field packed with passionate fans whose last home playoff experience was a loss to Seattle in the 2016 MLS Cup final.

“We’re against a team that’s a little bit desperate, so it’s important that we match the intensity or set the intensity on the night,” said Vanney. “There’s just a little bit more we, the guys, dig into when we’re on our home field and we have the great fans behind us. We’ve been able to utilize that momentum while we’ve played these games.”

The Red Bulls feel they didn’t play their game in their home stadium and cannot repeat that deficiency on Sunday.

“We played to their strength, we weren’t sharp on the ball, we gave so many balls away and we were too slow,” Felipe said. “We know what we did wrong and we know what we need to do better next game in order to get what we want. We’re going to play to our strengths, we’re going to put the game on our terms and we’re going to go from there.”

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