It’s the most favourable matchup that was available to Toronto. Greg Vanney will not tip his hand either way when it comes to preferred opponents but the Reds will be pleased not to have to return to Atlanta United this year and the club that beat them, the Columbus Crew, is the hottest in MLS right now.
The injury and goalkeeping problems that plagued the Chicago Fire in their 4-0 defeat to the Red Bulls probably made them the weakest of the contenders in the Eastern Conference, but they were never a possible TFC opponent in this round as the third seed.
All things considered, then, the knockout round couldn’t really have gone better for Toronto. Atlanta were stopped in their tracks and Columbus and New York City are now paired together in a tie that will end the season of another very good team.
But therein lies the beauty of being the sixth seed for the Red Bulls: the chance that a little bit of the relief of avoiding a team that put more points on the board in the regular season manifests itself as complacency.
Jesse Marsch may not possess the quality and depth in his squad that Vanney does, but he has built a team that will punish any lack of sharpness or focus it detects.
In that respect, much has been made and written about the Red Bulls’ aggressive pressing, which posed TFC a few problems in their 4-2 win at BMO Field a month ago.
It was on full display again in Chicago. There’s only a small window from that game in which you can analyze each team’s ‘plan A’ before the Red Bulls took a quick 2-0 lead that changed the complexion of things entirely, but straight from kick-off they set about trying to dominate the central areas.
There’s a few things to digest here. The first is how much pressure New York get on Dax McCarty, who they clearly targeted in the absence of Bastian Schweinsteiger; Michael Bradley can probably expect the same treatment.
The Red Bulls play an unusual 3-3-3-1 formation that sees every single player tuck inside when they don’t have possession. McCarty is surrounded, squeezed and rushed into a loose pass and the right wing-back - the very talented Tyler Adams - is positioned narrowly enough to make the interception.
That overloading of the central areas also gives them a chance to dominate on second balls and keep attacks alive. Daniel Royer retrieves the first clearance in this instance and in the build-up to Bradley Wright-Phillips’ opening goal, New York cut out attempted clearances three times to keep the pressure on.
Thanks to some awful defending by Johan Kappelhof and Matt Lampson, the Red Bulls were able to turn that pressure into goals very quickly.
No system is impregnable, though, and New York have their weaknesses like everyone else. Many of them were on display in Toronto’s win in September, even if it was not exactly a vintage TFC performance.
There was the Red Bulls’ vulnerability when they get a taste of their own medicine and are pressed into a turnover themselves, which can leave them with too many players ahead of the ball and Felipe isolated as the sole defensive midfielder.
There was - on a related note - the fact that they are just not that good at defending in their own half. The Red Bulls’ basic defensive strategy is to spend as little time there as possible, which makes sense when your central defenders are not especially notable and your midfield is loaded with players who prefer to attack.
There was their neglect of runs made into the box from wide areas due to their desire to congest the middle, which Justin Morrow clinically exposed.
And there was the difficulty New York have keeping their pressing up for 90 minutes. They have conceded 49% of their goals this season in the final half hour of games, the third-highest percentage in MLS.
While another run-out for the 4-3-1-2 is not out of the question, I’d expect to see the 3-5-2 back, more freedom for the wing-backs and Nicolas Hasler starting to give Toronto a goal threat on both flanks. The combinations Victor Vazquez and Marky Delgado have developed with the men outside of them will be important.
Toronto will hope to establish a level of comfort in the face of the Red Bulls’ pressure, take the crowd out of the game as much as possible and make the home team chase, setting themselves up to finish the match with more left in the tank and a deeper bench to lean on.
The most important attribute TFC will need to show is patience. The likelihood is that New York will score at some point over the 180 minutes and if the Reds are too eager in their attempts to reply, they will risk making things worse.
Against a side that did not see Sebastian Giovinco but still shipped five goals (and it could have been more) in the two meetings between these clubs during the regular season, chances will eventually come.
If Toronto can keep their heads clear and their game error-free in the meantime, a place in the conference finals will be theirs for the taking.