Born Free (MLS Eastern Conference Semis; Leg 1 Recap)

Robert Cole/ALOST


akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief


HARRISON, NJ — For almost the entirety of the second half, Toronto FC, the team who set the Major League Soccer single-season record for most points in a regular season, was on the back foot against the New York Red Bulls, a surge from the hosts which looked as if it was going to be enough to produce a shock result against the best team in the league. Toronto needed a swift kick.

Specifically, it needed a Sebastian Giovinco free kick, and in the 72nd minute, his opportunity to produce his specialty came about – and he did not miss his opportunity. Giovinco curled in a wonderful free kick over the wall and into the back of the net late in the second half to lift Toronto to a 2-1 win over the Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The return leg is on Sunday at BMO Field in Canada’s largest city.

One of the main reasons Giovinco is in prime position to win the league’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in three seasons is his deadly ability to make the opposition pay for committing fouls just outside of their own penalty area, and tonight’s latest dead-ball masterpiece was also a bit of déjà vu. In Toronto’s regular-season finale on Oct. 22, his free kick in the 84th minute against Atlanta United FC salvaged a 2-2 draw, preventing Atlanta from earning a first-round bye. (Atlanta was subsequently eliminated from the playoffs in the knockout round by Columbus.) Tonight, Giovinco was fouled by Red Bulls midfielder Felipe, a slight touch in the back of the leg that the former made the most of to earn the whistle from the referee.

The rest was history: a curler over the four-man wall and past a sprawling Luis Robles in the Red Bulls goal. It was the seventh time this season Giovinco scored on a free kick.

The two halves were pretty much mirror images of each other, with Toronto FC dominating the first half while being pushed around for the majority of the second half by the Red Bulls. Any possible nerves that Toronto FC could have come into the game with because of its record-breaking 69-point season and playing its first playoff game after a bye was short-lived, as they carried the pace of play and created the better chances in the first half than their counterparts.

By the eighth minute, Toronto was on the board. Attacker Jozy Altidore made a run down the right flank and sent in a cross into the box that was knocked away from goal by Robles, who decided to parry the ball away instead of making what probably would have been a fairly routine catch. Instead, his deflection went right into the path of midfielder Victor Vázquez, whose right-footed effort sailed past Robles to the goalkeeper’s left to give Toronto an early lead.

New York had to consider itself lucky that the deficit was not worse just a few minutes later. In the 15th minute, another Altidore cross found its way to left back Justin Morrow, and his subsequent shot was ticketed to the bottom corner of the goal if it was not for a goal-line interception from defender Michael Murillo. Twenty minutes later, Morrow sent in a cross into the box that midfielder Marco Delgado headed right off of the crossbar, with the ball bouncing back into the field of play and eventually cleared by the New York defense.

Despite producing little in the way of chances in the first half, the Red Bulls were given a lifeline in first-half stoppage time. Wright-Phillips dispossessed Delgado near the top of the Toronto penalty area and then was tripped up by defender Drew Moor just inside of the box and was awarded a penalty. Daniel Royer stepped up and scored on an exquisite chip down the middle of the goal to tie the score at 1-1 in the third minute of extra time. That kick was the last action of the first half.

New York was able to carry over the momentum from that goal into the start of the second half, where they dominated possession of the ball for the first 25 minutes and almost went ahead on a couple of occasions. Royer sent a long ball towards the box for Wright-Phillips to chase down, as the ball went over the head of substitute defender Nick Hagglund and triggered a foot race between Wright-Phillips and Toronto FC goalkeeper Alexander Bono for the ball. Bono just beat Wright-Phillips to the ball in the box, breaking up the play and extinguishing that threat.

Super sub Gonzalo Verón came on to bolster the attack for the Red Bulls in the 62nd minute, and less than a minute after his entrance, he unleashed a powerful short-range effort on goal which was blocked by Bono and out for a corner kick.

All the momentum for the Red Bulls was partially stunted, initially, on the questionable foul called on Felipe, though the reality of that call sunk in immediately with the Red Bulls players and fans after knowing that the free kick would be taken from an excellent position for a dead ball specialist to do some serious damage, with Giovinco being arguably the best in the league in exactly those situations.

He did not miss his mark.

The return leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals tie will take place on Sunday in Toronto.

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