Toronto's Vazquez left to pick up slack left by suspended Altidore, Giovinco
Going into these MLS Cup playoffs, it was hard to see a team that'd be likely to take down Toronto FC. On Sunday, the Reds showed that their greatest rival may be their own tempers.
In an incredibly tense Eastern Conference semifinal second leg vs. the New York Red Bulls, Toronto fell 1-0 but advanced on away goals. The chippy affair seemed to follow the blueprint of a playoff hockey game, with face-to-face encounters brewing nearly every five minutes at BMO Field. It made for scintillating viewing, and ultimately showed how the Reds can be felled: the easiest way to beat Goliath may be to get under his skin.
In the 35th minute, Toronto striker Jozy Altidore broke up an altercation between Tyler Adams and Sebastian Giovinco. As the American striker is some nine inches taller than his Italian strike partner, Adams backed away after a few words, and Altidore was off to match up with U.S. teammate Sacha Kljestan. The two traded barbs, and Kljestan put his hands on Altidore's sides. The striker (who turned 28 on Monday) fell to the ground like he was hit by a tidal wave, and both players earned yellow cards.
The tussle was far from over, and a second altercation in the tunnel had both ejected at halftime. Appearing agitated with the acidity of the game, Giovinco began airing his frustration with referee Chris Penso, who showed the 2015 MVP a yellow in the 80th minute -- his second of this postseason.
Altidore's sending off and Giovinco's accumulation of cautions mean both will miss the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals against Columbus Crew SC. The pair combined for 31 goals in the regular season, with 16 and 15, respectively. That production will be difficult to replace.
The third highest scorer for Toronto was a tie between Victor Vazquez and Justin Morrow, who each netted eight. Tosaint Ricketts (seven) was the only other Red with more than three tallies this season.
The double suspension couldn't come at a worse time for Toronto. Momentum was clearly slipping as Sunday's match went on, and New York seemed to draw a blueprint to take down the East's top seed. An international break means that Columbus will have 16 days to study the footage and try its hand at knocking off the favorite at MAPFRE Stadium.
Before losing to New York City FC 2-0 in their second leg, the Crew were unbeaten in their previous 12 matches. While NYCFC were able to tear apart a Crew backline anchored by a shaky Jonathan Mensah, returning to Columbus -- where fans have rallied around the players amid news of owner Anthony Precourt exploring the option of relocating the club to Austin, Texas -- may add a level of calmness to the fifth seed.
Of course, removing Toronto's two star strikers will make any backline sleep easier at night. The defending MLS runners-up will need someone to step up in a big way if they're to pip the Crew, who won their last home playoff game 4-1. So where will the coveted away goal come from?
The aforementioned trio of Vazquez, Morrow and Ricketts would seem to shoulder the burden.
While Vazquez's first MLS season has been most notable for his distribution and tireless motor, he's shown an ability to be in the right place within the 18-yard box and catch defenses napping. His goal in the first leg of the conference semifinals was a good example of his ability, as he received a cleared save by Luis Robles. He was able to switch the ball to his right foot on the fly, finding the far corner with a hard and low shot. Still, the Spaniard will be even more responsible for creating chances in Giovinco's absence.
Morrow will have his hands full with Harrison Afful, a complete, two-way right-back who had a moment of true magic to score against NYCFC on Halloween. While Ricketts was able to score his seven goals across just 1,003 minutes, he rarely had to be the main piece of Toronto's attack. Jonathan Osorio came off the bench in Toronto's second leg and showed some of the danger that helped him score twice in the 2016 postseason. While Michael Bradley will feel increased pressure to keep Toronto ticking, he'll have his hands full trying to slow a free-flowing Columbus attack, likely enveloping Federico Higuain.
However, Toronto's two best chances at getting on the board in Columbus may come from two young, mercurial Canadian attackers.
Raheem Edwards was a breakout star for the first half of the season, scoring as part of a 4-0 home cakewalk against NYCFC on July 30. His six assists were tied for second on the team, behind Vazquez and alongside Altidore and Giovinco. However, Edwards played just 130 minutes from Aug. 12 onward, a stretch of 11 matches in which he started once and had just one assist.
Compatriot Jordan Hamilton could be a major factor. Still, the homegrown player has just five goals in the past two years of limited playing time. He may not be able to ease into the spotlight.
For a Toronto team that survived a full meltdown thanks to an away goal, it may not be so lucky to get the crucial leg up once the playoffs resume.
Jeff Rueter is a St. Paul-based writer for ESPN FC and also contributes to The Guardian, FourFourTwo and Howler. Twitter: @jeffrueter.