Sebastian Giovinco works his free kick magic again as Toronto FC downs the Red Bulls

Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco, left, holds off New York Red Bulls midfielder Aaron Long (33) during the second half of an MLS Eastern Conference semifinal soccer match Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, in Harrison, N.J. Toronto FC won 2-1. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

HARRISON, N.J. – The brotherhood of goalkeepers was on display Monday night as Alex Bono went over to commiserate with Luis Robles, his New York Red Bulls counterpart, after Toronto FC‘s 2-1 playoff win.

Robles had become the latest victim of a Sebastian Giovinco free kick.

“I said ‘Listen, I’ve been there after training when he’s set up a wall of mannequins and he’s done that to me. I know exactly how you feel,”‘ said Bono.

Asked if he ever stopped a Giovinco special, Bono smiled and said: “Once in a while.”

Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal turned in the 72nd minute when, with the score tied 1-1, Brazilian midfielder Felipe took Giovinco down outside the box. The Italian promptly made the Red Bulls pay, curling the ball over the wall and out of the reach of Robles.

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READ MORE: Toronto FC kick off MLS playoff campaign after record-breaking regular season

Robles marvelled at Giovinco’s skill in skimming the ball over the wall.

“It doesn’t go up too high and doesn’t clear the wall by much,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Toronto had been on its heels in the second half until Giovinco, against the run of play, restored its lead.

“We were definitely up against it,” Bono said.

It was Giovinco’s seventh goal from a direct free kick this season. His six during the regular-season are a league record as are his 13 over his three MLS seasons (the most of any player in the league’s history since 2003 when the stat was first kept).

“He’s amazing,” said Toronto coach Greg Vanney. “We talk about it all the time but the knack to step up in the moment and make a play is what star players do.”

League-leading Toronto defended well and asked questions on the counter-attack in a first half that finished 1-1. But it needed its Italian ace to steady the ship midway through a rocky second half as sixth-seeded New York came out with far more purpose.

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Toronto, surviving a close call from Bradley Wright-Phillips in the 62nd minute and a Gonzalo Veron blast minutes later, weathered the storm. And then Giovinco worked his magic.

Victor Vazquez scored in the eighth minute for Toronto, piling the pressure on the home team.

Daniel Royer scored from the penalty spot for the Red Bulls in first-half stoppage time.

“Not a good performance from us, and disappointing in such a big match, but that being said, it’s halftime,” said New York coach Jesse Marsch. “There’s still some left to this game, as crappy as it feels right now. We still have a lot to play for.”

The two teams meet again Sunday in the return leg at BMO Field, where Toronto led the league with a .853 home winning percentage (13-1-3) this season. The Red Bulls tied for sixth in road success (.353, 5-10-2).

It could be a chippy affair given the bad blood that was bubbling Monday night. It should also be entertaining with the Red Bulls needing to answer Toronto’s two away goals.

Toronto captain Michael Bradley relished the physical contest.

“If you want to be the team holding the trophy in the end, then you’ve got to deal with these kinds of nights,” he said. “They can’t faze you. You have to have a group that accepts the challenge, that embraces it, that goes for it, that finds ways to win.

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“They’re not the prettiest games always but to get to the biggest games, you’ve got to know how to navigate these ones.”

The series winner will face either second-seeded New York City FC or fifth-seeded Columbus Crew SC in the conference final.

“It’s a great result but it’s only halfway done,” cautioned Bradley. “And we’re not celebrating anything yet.”

There were danger signs early Monday for Toronto as the Red Bulls pressed on a cool New Jersey evening at Red Bull Arena. But it was Toronto that went ahead in the eighth minute.

And despite all the talk about New York’s high press, it was the visitors who forced a turnover, winning the ball back from a New York throw-in to set up the goal. After taking a pass from Vazquez and leaving Damien Perrinelle in his wake with a nifty move, Jozy Altidore raked in a cross from the right that a diving Robles pushed away – but only as far as Vazquez who controlled the ball and then hammered it home.

Toronto came close in the 36th minute but Marky Delgado’s header off a beautiful Vazquez cross rattled off the crossbar with Robles beat.

While the hardcore home supporters behind Robles’ goal in the so-called South Ward made their presence felt from the get-go with a constant din, there were plenty of empty seats in the stadium’s upper tier. A phalanx of Toronto fans was squeezed high up at the other end, doing their best to serenade the visitors.

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The home fans booed Altidore and Bradley all night, another hangover of the failed U.S. World Cup qualifying campaign. Midway through the first half that included a F-bomb chants aimed at both.

Of course, they had had little to cheer about. Especially with Bradley breaking up attacks and a dancing Altidore tormenting defenders.

But that changed in first-half stoppage time when referee Drew Fischer pointed to the penalty spot after Drew Moor knocked down Wright-Phillips from behind after the English striker pickpocketed Delgado. There was little contact but it was a clumsy challenge.

Royer made no mistake with the spot kick, chipping the ball down the middle as Alex Bono dove to one side.

New York had been outplayed in the half but walked off even.

Moor, who rolled his right ankle on the penalty play, was replaced by Nick Hagglund to start the second half. Hagglund made some big defensive plays as the Red Bulls pressed.

Vazquez came off in 65th minute, labouring after taking a hip to the groin in a collision.

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