Toronto FC dropped points for the first time in nearly a month on Wednesday night with a 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls at Pratt & Whitney Stadium’s Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut.
Alejandro Pozuelo put the Reds ahead from the penalty spot in the 23rd minute and Quentin Westberg made a series of stops to preserve the lead, only for a wonderstrike from teenager Caden Clark to level for the Red Bulls in the 77th minute.
The draw ends Toronto’s winning streak at five matches, but extends the unbeaten run to eight – result elsewhere maintained the three-point lead at the top of the Eastern Conference and the Supporters’ Shield race.
“We'd like to get pressure to the ball,” admitted Greg Vanney of Clark’s equalizer. “When you play Red Bulls it's about where you lose the ball and we lost the ball in our half the field which turns into a little bit of a quick counter where we have to reorganize and figure out how to get pressure to the ball.”
“It's a great strike too, so you have to give him credit for that, but we should have gotten out of that transition and not lost the ball in the position we did,” he continued. “We had more than enough chances in the game, especially leading up to that point, that it would have been nice to pick up the second one. That would have iced it for us.”
“But I'm proud of the guys to put in the shift today because it's a game on three days rest and the fourth one in a series of five here,” Vanney added. “The guys battled.”
Following a tight, back-and-forth opening 20 minutes, it was a corner kick from Pablo Piatti that led to a handball in the New York box.
Pozuelo, as he has many times before, stood over the penalty spot, ready for the duel.
Discounted shenanigans against the Montreal Impact notwithstanding, Pozuelo has been a virtual lock from 12 paces, converting 10 of his 11 attempts. Ryan Meara was locked in uncertainty, frozen to his spot, as the Spanish midfielder slotted his right-footer to the right-side of goal.
"He runs on to it kind of straight, so it's difficult for goalkeepers to see what's going to happen,” sympathized Vanney. “He's looking at them, right in the eyes, trying to see what they're going to do, so keepers don't really want to give away what they're going to do. Plus he's shown to go to any side, but also chip you up the middle if you try to go early.”
“It's really difficult for the keepers because to save anything you've got to get a good jump on it,” he added. “But if they jump he's looking and he'll switch it up or he'll do something else.”
Lead in hand, Westberg came up big in the 29th minute when he got down well to his right to deny a Florian Valot strike bound for the bottom corner and TFC got a reprieve in the 33rd minute when a rip from Dru Yearwood was ruled off by a belated flag with an offside Red Bull attacker interfering in the play.
Westberg saved his best for the 56th minute when Tom Barlow was sprung clear on goal, only for the TFC keeper to get the better of that duel as well, squeezing the proverbial pads to close up the five-hole.
“Patience is a good word. He is an excellent reader of the situation,” said Vanney of Westberg. “The ball gets played through to Barlow. Q realized he had a good angle and that he was going to get tight enough to make it difficult to beat him.”
“He just stayed big and closed up the hole,” he continued. “For Barlow, he made the goal look really small, didn’t give him much to shoot at and then his reactions are fantastic.”
It took an unstoppable one in the final 15 minutes of the match to get past him.
“I wish I had,” said Westberg, asked if anyone could have prevented Clark’s blast. “Yes, sometimes you need to give the goal-scorer credit for doing what he did and that was the case tonight.”
“He turned in very tight space in a small pocket and he released a nice strike,” he continued. “I wish I had made the save, but sometimes you need to appreciate the game and great goals being scored, and tonight this little guy, this young guy, had a banger. Congrats to him, just unfortunate that it happened against us.”
It is never comfortable against the Red Bulls; the match was a clash of styles: Toronto’s possession-based vs. New York’s high press.
Both teams had their moments of superiority, their looks at goal.
“We were well prepared, we knew they were going to come out hard. They were very aggressive, but they still left us with a few chances in transition. It was a game of styles,” assessed Westberg. “We did alright adapting, we created chances without possession, which is always a good sign, but also it's different for us to not have the ball that much.”
“It was a challenge – you need to give the Red Bulls credit for their mentality and for the efforts,” he added. “They created a lot of trouble for us, but at the same time I like our style of play better.”
When at the top, everyone is gunning for you.
“They gambled a little bit, put an all-in effort. They gave everything they had to beat the number one team in the standings right now,” said Westberg. “This is what happens when you're on top, no? Teams always play their best game against you. I saw that Cincinnati beat Columbus – this is what happens. When you're on top of the table, you're the special game for every team.”
“Red Bull played their best football, or close to their best football, tonight against us,” he continued. “We were able to slow their waves down a little bit. For sure, we would have liked better on a few moments, but overall it was an amazing effort. It's not easy, a game every three days.”
Winning 1-0, as TFC has done a lot this season, is the sign of a confident team, able to both create enough chances to score, but also to keep it solid at the back. It is a risk, however, to not pile on when the opponent is forced to open up in search of an equalizer.
“Especially against a team like Red Bulls, who are super opportunistic – that's their whole game,” explained Vanney. “It's about second balls, transitions, short possessions where they can win the ball in turnovers in the attacking half of the field or if they can clean up a second ball when they lump it up to the forwards, try to play direct off of that, and set pieces. Those are their moments, what they play for.”
“They try to create a little bit of chaos within the game and utilize those transitions and so that's a team that you always want to put away when you have the opportunity because the game never looks as clean as you'd like it to, especially when you’ve got tired legs and things aren't just as sharp or as clean as you would like them to be,” he added. “You're vulnerable, so you want to get the second one and you want to put the distance in between you when you have those opportunities.”
Toronto will conclude the series of five matches in 16 days on Sunday when Atlanta United FC comes to Connecticut.
“We’ve been on a great run,” said Vanney. “It was short rest, they were a team coming off of one day extra rest, there were a number of things that concerned me a little bit about this game. Every point matters, so us being able to take a point away tonight is a good thing. And now we get the extra day of recovery as we go on to the final game of the stretch.”
“We'll get guys turned around and a group ready to compete again on Sunday,” he continued. “Our guys are disappointed because they want to win every game and we had the chances to win the game, but we're going to regroup and we'll be ready to go for the next one against Atlanta.”
Bring it on.
“If we're going to be in a hotel in Hartford might as well play games,” quipped Westberg. “Let's keep it going, let's make the best of this season and of this situation. And it's doing all of this together and being very open minded and very clear that it's not the easiest of situations. Adapting, showing good strength as a group, and doing everything together is what is going to keep us going through this stretch of games.”