Toronto FC lost 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls in an abrasive, ill-tempered game Sunday but still advanced to the MLS Eastern Conference final on the away goals rule after the series ended in a 2-2 tie on aggregate.
It was a feisty affair that saw Toronto striker Jozy Altidore and Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan sent off after a tunnel melee at halftime. And things got worse after that with the game threatening to spiral out of control from referee Chris Penso, who issued eight yellows in addition to the two reds.
League-leading Toronto will be without its other star striker next time out after Sebastian Giovinco received his second yellow in as many games.
TFC will play either Columbus Crew SC or New York City FC in the Conference final.
Bradley Wright-Phillips, notching his 100th career goal for the sixth-seeded Red Bulls when a long-range shot deflected in off him, scored the game’s lone goal in the 53rd minute to give the visitors hope.
A Toronto goal by Jonathan Osorio in the 78th minute was called off due to a foul, apparently for what was considered a shove to a Red Bulls player.
Things got even uglier minutes later when a drink was thrown from the stands at Penso after he booked Giovinco.
The Red Bulls, who finished the regular season 19 points below Toronto, needed to win and score at least two goals Sunday to avoid defeat in the series. That was always going to be a tall order, given Toronto’s home record and its potent offence.
The bad blood bubbled from the get-go and Altidore and Kljestan did not emerge from the tunnel for the second half. It was later announced the two had been red-carded for violent conduct in the melee unseen by the sellout crowd of 29,974 at BMO Field on a wet, grey day.
Both players had been yellow-carded earlier for a confrontation in the 34th minute.
The two teams use the same tunnel to exit the field but the visitors are supposed to turn left to their dressing room while the home side goes straight to reach theirs.
“Whatever happened on our side of the tunnel which means their players shouldn’t have been on our side of the tunnel,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said in a halftime interview. “I don’t know the rest of it.”
Neither team seemed happy with Penso and Toronto captain Michael Bradley was yellow-carded for giving Penso an earful on the field after the first half ended.
The Red Bulls went ahead early in the second half when a speculative Daniel Royer shot from some 40 yards out deflected off Wright-Phillips into the corner, while a stranded goalkeeper Alex Bono looked on.
Bono then came up big in the 62nd minute, coming out to stop Wright-Phillips from close range.
Wright-Phillips was yellow-carded in the 71st minute for elbowing defender Drew Moore in the head.
New York had more of the ball in a combative first half but failed to create chances while Toronto looked dangerous on the counter-attack. With 58.8 per cent possession and six corners but no shots in the first 45 minutes, the Red Bulls’ attack was like taking a butter knife to a pickup truck.
Holding a 2-1 lead from Monday’s first leg at Red Bull Arena, Toronto was content to absorb pressure and attack. Then Wright-Phillips’ goal gave the visitors a new lease on life.
BMO Field has been a fortress this season. Toronto led the league with an .853 winning percentage at home (13-1-3), posting nine shutouts and scoring three or more goals nine times during the regular season.
TFC also led the league with 74 goals, scoring in 31 of 34 games this season. It was last blanked at home on March 31.
History was also against the Red Bulls.
Going into Sunday’s play, home teams were 40-13-13 all-time in the second leg of a playoff series.
And only three times in MLS playoff history had a team hosted the first leg and lost, then won the second leg on the road to advance (Colorado Rapids, 2004; San Jose Earthquakes, 2010; and Los Angeles Galaxy, 2012).
Toronto came into the game undefeated in its last five home matches against the Red Bulls, who last won at BMO Field in 2013.
Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez and Moor, who both left Game 1 early with injuries, had recovered enough to start Sunday. Looking for offence, Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch started Gonzalo Veron at the expense of Sean Davis in a more attacking formation.
The Red Bulls had more of the ball in the early goal but Toronto looked more dangerous on the counter attack. And Toronto came close in the 12th minute when Vazquez raked a low ball across the goal that first ‘keeper Luis Robles and then a defender tipped just out of the reach of Giovinco.
A minute later, Altidore went down clutching his face after what looked like an Aaron Long elbow. There was no foul on the play.
In the 23rd minute, Toronto fans howled for a penalty after Giovinco went down after contact with Michael Murillo. Penso waved it off.
The Red Bulls had five corners in the first 30 minutes but failed to turn them into chances.
There was a flashpoint in the 33rd minute after a poor tackle by Giovinco that Tyler Adams objected to. That led to a fracas and Kljestan shoving Altidore to the ground, with the burly Toronto forward looking to go down a little easy. Both men were yellow-carded.