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What we learned as Toronto FC beat New York City FC in the MLS playoffs

Jozy Altidore helped give Toronto an important lead to take to New York.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto  FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It took until very late in the match, but Toronto FC finally found a way to break through and score against an ultra-defensive New York City FC team, with Jozy Altidore and Tosaint Ricketts both scoring in the final 10 minutes to give Toronto a 2-0 lead to take into the second leg of their MLS Cup Playoff semifinal tie.

It was a show of force from Toronto for much of the match, dominating possession for long stretches and making constant forays forward. For all that quality, though, Toronto struggled in front of goal, rarely getting clean looks for shots on target, and when they did gets shots off on goal, surprise NYCFC starting goalkeeper Eirik Johansen was consistently up to the task.

Consistency was actually one of the big stories of the match, with Toronto struggling to regularly support their attack enough to truly make their dominance of possession dangerous, rather than just spending a lot of time bouncing around in the final third. NYCFC, meanwhile, struggled to be consistent in possession at all, with David Villa often forced to drop back past the halfway line just to pick up the ball and try to get something going in their own attack.

The other big story of the match was, unfortunately, referee Silviu Petrescu, who was at the center of numerous big decisions throughout the match. Especially with New York City FC showing a willingness to foul early, often, and hard, Petrescu had to keep a firm handle on this match to keep it from getting out of control, but few will look back on it and say that he did. Between NYCFC constantly fouling Sebastian Giovinco any time he got into the final third, seemingly missing Villa kicking out at Armando Cooper despite the incident happening right in front of him, and numerous other such incidents, there were far too many example of Petrescu having lost control of the match and not doing much to try to rein it back in.

It was a foul by NYCFC that saw the decisive goal scored, though, with a late and silly tackle on Michael Bradley giving Toronto a chance to lob the ball in with a lot of bodies thrown forward in the 84th minute. The ball bounced slightly clear before Giovinco lashed it back into the box, and after multiple deflections, it finally trickled through to Altidore to slam into the back of the net before wheeling away to celebrate with the Toronto fans.

That looked like it would be it before substitute attacker Ricketts, who’d gotten a key touch on Altidore’s goal, popped up after another Altidore shot in stoppage time was saved. Ricketts followed up the shot well, and when Johansen could only parry Altidore’s try away, Ricketts was right there to knock the rebound in and give Toronto an important two-goal lead heading into the second leg of this playoff tie.

Toronto have a lot of momentum behind them, especially thanks to this huge win, and their two goals going into the second leg will be massive advantage. New York City FC can still definitely win this tie, but they have a lot of questions to answer if they're going to advance to the MLS Cup Eastern Conference final.

Toronto FC: Clint Irwin; Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor, Nick Hagglund; Steve Beitashour, Armando Cooper (Will Johnson 86’), Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio (Tosaint Ricketts 83’), Justin Morrow; Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco (Marky Delgado 88’)

Goals: Altidore (84’), Ricketts (89')

New York City FC: Eirik Johansen; R.J. Allen, Fredric Brillant, Maxime Chanot, Ronald Matarrita; Miguel Lopez (Frank Lampard 60’), Andoni Iraola, Federico Bravo; Jack Harrison, David Villa (Khiry Shelton 78’), Steven Mendoza (Tony Taylor 86’)

Goals: None

Three things we learned

NYCFC’s ultra-defensive midfield just didn’t work

With Andrea Pirlo out and Frank Lampard limited to coming off the bench, NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira elected to go with a very conservative outlook in midfield. Mikey Lopez, Federico Bravo, and Andoni Iraola is a very defensive trio with very little creativity between the three of them, and that definitely showed in how New York managed things in this match.

Their midfield trio struggled to maintain effective possession or create anything dangerous going forward, forcing NYCFC to either go long on the counter or try to play through Villa when he could drop deep to pick up the ball. It wasn’t the most effective strategy, and it severely limited New York’s chances going forward. It didn’t even wind up helping them that much defensively, because that trio kept getting in each other’s way, trying to do the same things when Toronto were on the ball.

Starting Eirik Johansen worked out for NYCFC

When Josh Saunders was left on the bench in favor of the less experienced Johansen for NYCFC, many wondered what Vieira was thinking. Johansen quickly showed, however, that it was a wise choice — the 6’7" Norwegian keeper made several key saves just in the first half of the match, including two saves on shots from Giovinco that Saunders likely would have struggled with based on his recent form. Even when he eventually conceded a goal, the way the play developed on that set piece, it would have taken a miracle for him to get to the ball.

More than that, though, it seemed like Johansen did better at organizing his back line and directing them to respond to different situations than Saunders did. While he wasn’t as loud as Saunders can be, he was constantly gesturing, talking and pulling defenders aside during stoppages, and their back line responded well to his methods. NYCFC may have found their goalkeeper of the future without having to go on the market to find Saunders’ replacement.

Toronto may not have done enough with the home field advantage

With NYCFC’s starting lineup basically daring Toronto to come rampaging forward and try to score two or three goals before heading back to the Bronx for the second leg, one would have reasonably expected Toronto to play very aggressively. Especially at home with a large and loud crowd backing them, playing aggressively could and probably would have gone well for the Canadian side. For some reason, though, they didn’t, and because of that they didn’t give themselves as strong as an advantage in this tie as the run of play suggested it could.

Toronto didn’t play poorly by any means -- they were definitely the better team on the day — but too many times there were chances to score if there was another supporting runner or two, only for the attack to fizzle out because no one past Giovinco and Altidore was getting forward into the box. If Toronto had brought a little more aggression and hunger to this match, they could easily have taken a much more commanding lead in this tie before the second leg instead of their two late goals.