Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips celebrate Daniel Royer’s (left) penalty kick. (Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
HARRISON, N.J. — The Red Bulls find themselves behind the eight ball entering the second leg of their MLS Eastern Conference semifinal series against Toronto FC.
Surrendering two goals in the first leg at home put them in that precarious situation after their 2-1 defeat to Toronto FC at Red Bull Arena Monday night.
They need a win in the second match of the aggregate-goals series Sunday against a juggernaut of a side that has been virtually invincible at home, registering a sterling 13-1-3 mark at BMO Field this season.
As it turns out the Reds aren’t too shabby on the road as well (7-4-6 this season, including Monday night’s encounter).
“Not a good performance from us, and disappointing in such a big match,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch said. “But that being said, it’s halftime. There’s still some — still some left to this game, as crappy as it feels right now.”
The same went double for team captain Sacha Kljestan.
“We are playing against the best team in league history pretty much and we should have nothing to lose,” he said. “We go into that game and we play a little scared; pressure is on us and we bottle it up. We don’t perform the way we did against Chicago five days ago.”
Sebastian Giovinco snapped a 1-1 tie, connecting on a 25 yard free kick in the 72nd minute. Only seconds prior, he had been tripped by Felipe to set up the dead-ball situation.
The Atomic Ant drilled a shot over the defensive wall while Red Bulls defender Michael Murillo raced in vain to the left post.
Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono was magnificent when called upon. He made two key saves on second-half substitute Gonzalo Veron, including a diving stop in the 83rd minute, and denied Kemar Lawrence’s wicked header at the left post in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Seconds later, the game was called.
Toronto FC drew first blood with a precious away goal in the eighth minute.
Former Red Bulls forward Jozy Altidore fired a cross from the right side that Robles sprawled to knock away. The ball went to Victor Vazquez, who drilled a 15-yard shot into the lower right corner to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
“Having a chance to look at the first goal, I wish I would have done better,” Robles said. “Maybe do everything I can to bottle it up or find a way to just let it ride in a way so it goes wide in the box instead of going back into the middle.”
After a rousing start in the 4-0 road win over the Chicago Fire in the knockout round Wednesday, Marsch admitted he was confounded by Monday’s sluggish beginning.
“Wouldn’t have predicted it, didn’t see it coming, didn’t expect so many sub-par performances from our guys,” he said. “Didn’t expect us to lack explosiveness. So caught me by surprise, quite honestly. But sometimes in big games, that’s the way it goes.”
The nadir of the first half for the Red Bulls might have come in the 24th minute when a Sacha Kljestan corner kick, after three or four passes found its way back to Robles, instead of toward Toronto FC keeper Alexander Bono.
The Canadian side came oh-so close to doubling their advantage in the 36th minute when Marco Delgado banged a close-range head off the bar.
The Red Bulls got a gift and an opportunity to equalize when referee Drew Fischer ruled that defender Drew Moor took down Bradley Wright-Phillips in the penalty area a minute into stoppage time. It appeared that BWP had not been fouled.
Daniel Royer converted the ensuing penalty into the middle of the net while Bono dove to his left for a 1-1 deadlock three minutes into added time on what turned into the final kick of the half.
Moor paid for the play in another way as he was forced to leave the match at halftime after rolling his ankle. Nick Hagglund replaced him at the start of the second half.
“I’m disappointed because I don’t think that we played liek us,” Kljestan said. “Toronto had a gameplan and they came out and executed it very well. We didn’t stick to the details that make us good. We were unable to finish our chances. It just leaves the worst taste in my mouth.
“I told the guys I can’t care if we lose, as long as we play like we’re supposed to play and we go out and give it our all. If we’re going to be going down, we’re going to go down swinging. But tonight, we went down too easily.”