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Toronto FC were led astray by the New York Red Bulls, and it nearly cost them

The Reds played on their opponents’ terms.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Where do you start with a game like that?

In the tunnel, I suppose. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure what happened between Jozy Altidore and Sacha Kljestan, or whatever else it was that sparked a mass brawl and resulted in both players being sent off.

Toronto FC’s account is that a number of New York Red Bulls players and staff members “ambushed” Altidore. Altidore says he had his back turned when Kljestan grabbed him.

Michael Bradley, who was one of the last players off the pitch, pointed out that he discovered the melee deep into the tunnel, near the TFC locker room. The away team is supposed to have turned off to their own room before that.

How Altidore reacted to the alleged provocation, though, was not mentioned by anyone on the Toronto side. Kljestan says Altidore pushed him into a wall.

Whether there is any closed-circuit television in the area that could give the powers that be a clearer picture, I’m not sure. For now, Greg Vanney’s hope that the case can be pursued to an ending that sees Altidore take to the field when Toronto visit the Columbus Crew in two weeks’ time appears a long shot.

The American’s behaviour in the first half will not help his cause.

Altidore rushed in to confront Tyler Adams when the teenager took exception to a foul by Sebastian Giovinco.

He squared up to Kljestan before falling dramatically when the midfielder shoved him away.

And he took the bait from Felipe, a master of the dark arts who no doubt sensed a golden opportunity to get Altidore sent off, and got in his face too.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

That was all in the space of one break in play. He totally lost his cool.

Altidore defending himself - as he and TFC have claimed was the case - in the tunnel is one thing. But this was long before that and it was bizarre; the behaviour of a player who, for some reason, had seen red and was not thinking rationally.

He was the worst offender, but not the only one. Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez were both guilty of grabbing the referee as they appealed decisions, and while there was little malice in their actions it is something other officials might not have brushed off.

Altidore was gone by the time the inflated playoff-time press pack reached the locker rooms, but Bradley was unapologetic about what had transpired.

“We showed real balls tonight, plain and simple,” he said. “Any other team finds a way to lose the series.

“They did nothing. They score a deflected goal, which makes the last 30 or 35 minutes tight. But we kept our nerve and made big plays when we need to make big plays. And we found a way to go through, so every guy should feel really good and really proud about what went into today.”

“There isn’t one person in the world who’s going to guilt us into feeling sorry for advancing the way we did,” he added. “Not even close.”

Toronto certainly defended well. They largely kept the Red Bulls at bay and conceded only due to that big deflection. When their one clear chance of the game - the one that, thanks to the deflected goal, could have left TFC on the verge of elimination - fell to Bradley Wright-Phillips, Alex Bono was there.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

But the Reds still lost on the day - only the second time they have done so at BMO Field this season - and were an error or a stroke of bad luck away from seeing everything they have worked for this season flushed down the toilet.

They emerged, but with two of their designated players suspended and the third left having to walk a tightrope away from home to avoid joining them.

Bradley’s hardheadedness is understandable if you put yourself in his shoes. The captain is a fierce competitor and the way he saw it, his team was pushed. The appropriate response, in his mind, was to push back harder.

But that was exactly the reaction the Red Bulls wanted to draw. And while, as Bradley noted, winning ugly is sometimes necessary in the playoffs, it was not a foregone conclusion that this match would go that way. TFC played their part in seeing that it did.

It’s not that we need Toronto to win with style; at this stage of the season, it’s all about results and you take them in whatever manner they come.

The reason style matters to this team, though, is that it gives them a better chance of winning. When they are expansive and fluid and get their best players on the ball, they are very difficult for any opponent to contain.

The way the Red Bulls were able to lead them off that course was concerning.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

“I think that [the fact the game spiralled out of control] was perfectly okay for [the Red Bulls],” Vanney said. “I think that antagonizing and trying to get the game to be a little chaotic, a little off of tilt, was okay for their side. That is what it is.”

“You can’t separate anybody in terms of where it started,” he added later. “Everyone can make their own judgment. I have my opinions but we’ve got to keep our cool and stay focused on the task in hand. We didn’t.”

There has been merit this season in Vanney’s approach of not trying to play the dictator with a squad full of big personalities, and simply letting minor controversies and little bouts of petulance pass.

You wonder, though, whether we are now seeing the other side of that softer touch.

You wonder, too, whether what has happened to Altidore and Bradley over the past month has had more of an effect on them than they have let on. At times during this tie, it seemed personal to them.

They have come under siege for a supposed lack of fight and tenacity, and perhaps it should not be surprising that they have gone on the defensive in a bid to prove their mettle.

But that’s not the mindset that got Toronto here and it’s not the one they need now. The Reds weren’t scared on Sunday, but they weren’t especially scary either.