The game in 100 words (or less more): When fans of Toronto FC, the New York Red Bulls and MLS in general tuned in for the second leg of the above sides’ Eastern Conference semifinal on Sunday, surely every last one of them thought, “Gee, I really am looking forward to The Chris Penso Show this afternoon.” Thrust upon the big stage, Penso duly delivered eight yellow cards, two red cards, and lost complete control of the game very early on, which resulted in no fewer than a half-dozen chest-to-chest and hand-to-hand confrontations between players from both sides, and even Penso himself. Jozy Altidore and Sacha Kljestan were each sent off at halftime after reported “violent conduct” as the two sides left the field; the two U.S. national teamers were involved in a silly, seemingly nothing dust-up minutes earlier. As for the actual soccer that was played, New York entered BMO Field 2-1 down before pulling level to 2-2 (though still behind on away goals) through Daniel Royer in the 54th minute. 11 shots between the two sides, just three on target With both sides down to 10 men for the entirety of the second half, the game opened up and a handful of chances came for — and were wasted by — both sides.
… and ended with “violent conduct” in the tunnel, for which both players were shown a second yellow card.
54′ — Royer gets a wicked deflection, scores from nothing — After the halftime shenanigans — and with all that extra space on the field — this game needed a goal to keep it interesting. Royer and/or Bradley Wright-Phillips delivered in short order. Game on.
78′ — Adams puts it in his own net, but Osorio is offside — It’s the (own) TFC needed to put the tie to bed, but Jonathan Osorio was offside and clearly affected Tyler Adams’ ability to clear the ball.
80′ — Giovinco mouths off, gets himself suspended next game — After picking up a yellow in the first leg, Giovinco reached the limit when he chased after and shouted at Penso.
The match in 100 words (or less): New York Red Bulls have the steel and experience to trouble most teams in MLS, and weren’t rattled when Victor Vazquez helped the visiting Reds to a 1-0 lead. An unfortunate but very legit penalty against Drew Moor sent the defender to the sidelines injured and RBNY to halftime level. The Red Bulls very much had the run of play until Felipe fouled Sebastian Giovinco about 25 yards away from goal. At this point, we can just leave that sentence there and know you know the score went to 2-1. The Supporters’ Shield winners now have two away goals heading back to Toronto for the second leg.
The moments that mattered
8′ — Vazquez gets the favorites an away goal — Clumsy defending from the Red Bulls allowed Jozy Altidore to the right flank, and the American striker walked around Damien Perrinelle before crossing into the six. Red Bulls backstop Luis Robles parried it back into the 18, and Victor Vazquez had ages to line up his shot. He did not mess up.
Sacha Kljestan had a chance at the other end, but Toronto resumed control. Marky Delgado headed a shot off the cross bar in the 36th minute.
45+1′ — BWP goes down under Moor challenge — Wright-Phillips took the ball off Delgado on the edge of the 18, and then hit the deck when he caught Drew Moor off guard with a short touch. Daniel Royer stepped up and cruised his effort down the middle.
All game long’ — Bono stands up to the task at hand — The penalty, halftime break, and injuries to Drew Moor and Victor Vazquez, seemed to shake up TFC. Fortunately for the Reds, goalkeeper Alex Bono was up for the call.
74′ – Giovinco free kick — Some time this summer, our own Andy Edwards and I had a discussion about how Giovinco free kicks from a certain area are either free throws or penalty kicks. Either way, boom.
Fewer fun things have been as agonizing as filling out a ballot for the 2017 Major League Soccer Best XI.
This goes beyond the travails of deciding whether you need your lineup to be one that can actually play functionally in a match, whether that be by using a standard formation or players out of position. Even long believers in that process — this post-writer fell in that group until, spoiler alert, this season — would be challenged by this season’s options.
Part of that is due to super teams — Who contributed the most? — while plenty more comes down to some absolutely bonkers performances from players on wildly disappointing teams (Ignacio Piatti and Romain Alessandrini, we’re looking at you. Andre Blake, you, too).
1) Super teams — Toronto FC was the best single season club in MLS history and, given the parity and strength of the league relative to previous seasons, it’s easy to argue it isn’t even close. Sebastian Giovinco is its best player but missed significant playing time. Victor Vazquez became the straw that stirred the drink. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were fantastic but missed time with international commitments. Left-sided man Justin Morrow is, spoiler alert, my defender of the year.
How many can you take from that squad, and how about the shiny new toy that is Atlanta United, which had injury absences of its own but excited on so many levels. Beyond ex-River Plate defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, the Five Stripes boasted four star attackers in Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, and Yamil Asad. Consider that this was September’s Best XI according to the advanced stats people at WhoScored.com:
2) Midfield and attack problems: This is rarely easy given the magnification of star turns from players who score goals, but choosing even seven players this season was troubling given the remarkable amount of new boys and regular stars who got the job done this season.
In the midfield, there was the no doubt inclusion of Diego Valeri, who’s 21 goals and 11 assists demanded MVP attention, and the dominant seasons of Seattle’s Cristian Roldan and Montreal’s Piatti. Then there’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, Vazquez, Alessandrini, and RSL’s Albert Rusnak.
Difficult stuff, and we’re not even talking out-and-out attack. Martinez and Giovinco posted gaudy numbers despite missing significant portions of the schedule with injury. Is that enough to discount them? What absence counts for this? Miguel Almiron missed time late, while David Villa, too, had an MVP caliber season and Nemanja Nikolic only went and led his third-straight league in goals.
All that without a mention of Alex Ring, Justin Meram, Lee Nguyen, and Ola Kamara. Fortunately for the league’s voters, Blerim Dzemaili’s 22 matches mean he wasn’t around long enough to warrant a vote despite 7 goals and 10 assists in limited time.
3) Formation: So, given this and the amazing season of Morrow, how do you rightly go about picking three at the back? It’s enough to move stringent XI voters to a team that would get in trouble on a real pitch by using a 3-4-3 to maximize mids and forwards.
4) Goalkeeper: The usual suspects — Luis Robles, Bill Hamid — were good, with several others included in the MLS MVP shortlist: Bobby Shuttleworth, Tim Howard, Joe Bendik, and Stefan Frei (Robles was not included in RBNY’s bunch). However, it’s hard to imagine voters weren’t deciding between former No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Andre Blake of Philadelphia and the near-impeccable season of Sporting KC’s Tim Melia.
5) So what was your ballot, writer dude?
The Best XI was the only category that took me longer to sort out that the MVP debate, and that’s because I had a very difficult time reconciling Valeri’s unbelievable full season with the fact that Giovinco was the best player despite missing five different stints with injury (More on that later).
Ultimately, I hedged on that “Could this team perform on the pitch?” question. As much as it would be easy to play a four at the back by including Graham Zusi, or to feel better about a back three by having Kendall Waston get a deserved spot, I’d rather have Justin Morrow slightly out of position than have to sacrifice a midfielder or attacker.
The trio of forwards was the most difficult choice. Martinez and Giovinco were Nos. 1 and 2 in terms of potent players in the league when healthy. Martinez’s 17 goals in 19 matches allowed me to slot him in the team, while Giovinco’s 16 goals and six assists in 25 matches feel similar. Including both, however, would mean dismissing Villa, the best player in league history and the prime reason NYCFC finished second in the East, or Nikolic.
Here’s one area I will hedge: While I felt confident in submitting my XI, I’ve since felt nagged by two exclusions: Villa (!!) and Waston. If the deadline was 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, I may have removed Martinez and Matt Besler.
Andre Blake (PHI)
L. Gonzalez Pirez (ATL) — Matt Besler (SKC) — Justin Morrow (TFC)
The standings: Toronto FC finish 1st in the Eastern Conference, and all of MLS — Supporters’ Shield winners; Atlanta United clinch the 4-seed in the East
The game: TFC’s bid to set a new all-time single-season points record was fulfilled on Sunday, as the 2017 Supporters’ Shield winners came from behind twice to secure a 2-2 draw with Atlanta United and finish the season on 69 points, moving one point ahead of the old record which they matched last week.
Yamil Asad and Josef Martinez (19th of the season) scored either side of Jozy Altidore‘s equalizer (15th) right on the hour mark. Sebastian Giovinco, as he’s well known to do, delivered a world-class free kick to bring TFC level again in the 84th minute. Having already secured the regular-season title and home-field advantage for the duration of their playoff journey, TFC had only the points record to play for. Atlanta, on the other hand, came so close to leapfrogging the Chicago Fire New York City FC in order to claim the East’s second spot, and the knockout-round bye that comes with it, but ultimately finish fourth. Miguel Almiron made his return from injury after missing the last month, getting a half-hour of work as he rebuild fitness and sharpness ahead of the playoffs.
60′ — Altidore brings TFC level with a quick finish — Sometimes all you have to do is be a pest, and good things will come. Altidore stuck with what appeared to be a hopeless ball, and pulled his side level.
The standings:NYCFC clinch the East’s 2-seed; Crew SC clinch the East’s 5-seed
The game: NYCFC limped over the finish line, having won just one of their final seven games, and so nearly coughed up the second seed in the process, if not for that late bit of brilliance from Giovinco. David Villa remains in scintillating form through all the ambient noise, though he remains but one (and a half, maybe) man. Spain’s all-time leading scorer bagged two more on Sunday to take his season tally to 22. Villa, however, was denied from the penalty spot during second-half stoppage time.
45′ — Villa beats Steffen near post, and it’s 2-1 — Zack Steffen should definitely be making this save, and not allowing a rebound opportunity. 22 for Villa, who doesn’t exactly need them gifted to him.
Star striker Sebastian Giovinco brought up the hypothetical in a recent interview, and the former Italian international believes that his current TFC side is good enough to avoid relegation in Italy’s top flight.
“There’s no doubt that [MLS] has improved,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “It’s still not on the same level as the elite European leagues, but it all depends on the desire and the effort you put out there. Big names keep arriving and there are a lot of top quality South Americans.
“[If Toronto were in Serie A] we would avoid relegation easily, maybe finishing in mid-table.”
The comments were prompted by the Atomic Ant after Italy manager manager Gian Piero Ventura openly expressed concerns with Giovinco playing in MLS instead of one of Europe’s top leagues. The same could be said about Ventura’s predecessor and current Chelsea boss Antonio Conte.
It’s difficult to equate MLS directly to Serie A, or any other league for that matter, but one thing has been clear throughout Giovinco’s tenure in Toronto. He’s really good.
Giovinco has scored 54 regular season goals for TFC since joining the Canadian side in 2015, while adding 37 assists. Additionally, during last season’s playoff run — which saw Toronto advanced all the way to MLS Cup — Giovinco had four goals and as many assists.