It was a thing until it wasn’t.
Backed by a stout defense, Jozy Altidore and Tosaint Ricketts each bagged late goals as hometown Toronto FC bested NYCFC 2-0 Sunday night at BMO Field in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The visiting Bronx Blues, who chose to start just one of their three world-class designated players, face a stark uphill battle for the back end of the tie at Yankee Stadium on November 6th.
Toronto started all three of their designated players.
It’s rather stunning that 83 entire minutes passed with a scoreless deadlock. NYCFC goalkeeper Eirik Johansen, making just his second start in MLS play and his first on the road, stoned reigning league MVP Sebastian Giovinco twice over in the first half on chances that might have outfoxed a lesser bloke.
But on the other end, Johansen’s side were toothless.
City gaffer Patrick Vieira opted for steel over creativity, tossing out a 4-3-3 with the stalwart Andoni Iraola at the base of the midfield behind Federico Bravo and Mikey Lopez, the latter of whom hasn’t started a game since perhaps the Reagan Administration.
“We had a gameplan and I wanted to be more solid centrally,” Vieira said after the death. “That’s why I chose Mikey to play in this game.”
Goal-stacking talisman Frank Lampard spent the first hour on the bench. Ball-slinging magician Andrea Pirlo wasn’t even on the team sheet, allegedly due to muscle tightness in his calf.
According to sources close to the matter, Pirlo was visible in training all week, seemingly without incident. Interestingly enough, the Italian playmaker didn’t play the last time NYCFC visited BMO Field on May 18th.
Take from that what you will.
Perhaps by design, this was a rough, physical, emotional affair. The opposing factions barked back and forth on every challenge, six yellow cards were registered (five for the visitors), and the match ended with tempers fairly flaring even with the result sealed up with a bloody bow.
The moral of this story, however?
One team played not to lose. The other team played to win.
Is there any question about how this was going to play out?
The good news is this— New York City has two separate 2-0 victories under its belt against Toronto over the matchup’s brief history. If they can produce that same result on the return trip next week in the Bronx, where they haven’t lost in eight games on the trot, we’re looking at extra time. Extra time, baby!
But of course, if Toronto graces the score sheet in any way, NYCFC would have to win by three.
Keep in mind that this is a team that bested Colorado, the best defending team in MLS, four goals to one inside Yankee Stadium’s friendly confines. Just for kicks, they even did it without the services of David Villa.
But we’re grasping at a few straws here. The fact remains that Ricketts’s stoppage time strike was an absolute backbreaker, and places the odds squarely in favor of the Reds heading into next weekend.
Hope is a real thing, though. Even the audacious kind.
As Vieira puts it: “I look in the dressing room and we know anything can happen. We have to believe, we have to give ourselves a chance and go for it.”