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Week 31: New York Red Bulls 3-1 Toronto FC

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

It is easy, with hindsight, to take a result like this for granted: a comfortable home win over lamentable opposition.

Toronto FC has been a team in free fall since its front office turned on its coaching staff, told a squad that was third in the Eastern Conference standings with games in hand to "take it up a notch", and promptly fired almost the entire back room after the surprising discovery that publicly calling out a team when it really isn't doing at all badly on the eve of a match is not an effective motivational tactic.

This loss was TFC's sixth in nine games played since Tim Bezbatchenko aired his disappointment with what had been looking like a playoff-bound season. The team had lost eight of its 23 games prior to the event which precipitated the club's messy divorce from erstwhile head coach Ryan Nelsen.

So Toronto is a demoralized team that never really recovered from the decision to shoot itself in the foot with one third of the season to play. Of course, the New York Red Bulls won.

I felt comfortable when I was shaking Greg Vanney's hand after the game. I never feel comfortable, ever -Mike Petke (newyorkredbulls.com)

Except, it might easily have been a different result. Toronto isn't that far removed from being a better-than-most team in the Eastern Conference, and started the match with no small amount of determination to prove the point. TFC's early tactical plan was simple, but effective: fire the ball down the right flank to test RBNY's stand-in left back, Kosuke Kimura.

Kimura struggled to contain Jackson, and the Red Bulls found it increasingly difficult to hold on to the ball as the first half progressed. As the game ticked into its 25th minute, Luis Robles had been the busier 'keeper and all the home team had to show for its efforts (largely restricted to getting the ball to Thierry Henry, who would promptly try to thread a pass through the defense to Bradley Wright-Phillips) was a yellow card for Richard Eckersley.

And then BWP flipped the switch.

In the 26th minute, Lloyd Sam shot straight into the Toronto defense, Henry collected and pushed the ball wide left, from where Kimura delivered a first-time cross to the six yard box; BWP got between the center backs to tap in. 1-0 to the home team, but arguably against the run of play.

The goal woke the Red Bulls up. For the remaining 20-odd minutes of the first half, they dominated the game, finding the net with pleasing regularity.

In the 35th minute, Toronto 'keeper Joe Bendik clawed at an optimistic Henry chip, pushing the ball into play in front of his own goal. Steven Caldwell tried to head the rebound away, but Ruben Bover - starting for no better reason than the Red Bulls were missing four starters (Tim Cahill, Ambroise Oyongo and Roy Miller to international duty; Peguy Luyindula to suspension) - intercepted the clearance, shuffled toward goal, and poked the ball past Bendik for RBNY's second.

Fans may remember the last time Bover scored for the Red Bulls: his goal was called back for a penalty. No such anticlimax this time around.

I've been waiting since I come here to score a goal, and today my parents were here too -Ruben Bover(newyorkredbulls.com)

In two seasons with RBNY, Bover has not made the impact suggested when he cracked the starting lineup for Mike Petke's very first competitive game as head coach. But he is hardly a busted flush. At 22,  he is younger than Ian Christianson, Chris Duvall, Ryan Meara and Ambroise Oyongo (all 23), as well as Connor Lade and Eric Stevenson (both 24). And wherever his career takes him in future, he will always be able to say that his first goal in MLS was the one which put the New York Red Bulls into the 2014 playoffs.

Less than 10 minutes later - after Robles had once again bailed out the back line - Dax McCarty made an uncharacteristic run into the penalty area, allowed Warren Creavalle to keep him onside, and diverted a wayward shot from BWP into the net.

A three-goal lead at half-time should be the basis of a resounding home win for most teams. It did prove the foundation for RBNY's seventh straight win at the Arena, but the team contrived to make this about as nerve-wracking a 3-1 home victory as possible.

It is hard to get fans to feel anxious when you're winning by three goals, but the Red Bulls did their damnedest. They came out for the second half with little response to TFC's entirely predictable, all-or-nothing effort to get back into the game.

If Dominic Oduro were not Dominic Oduro, Toronto might have been on the board within five minutes of the restart, but the fastest man in MLS opted to shoot over the bar rather than try to find Jermain Defoe, who was lurking promisingly in the six-yard box.

It mattered little, TFC was getting as much of the ball as it could handle. An extended period of possession culminated in Michael Bradley chipping the back line and Justin Morrow reprising RBNY's opening goal of the game: he crossed first time from the left for Jonathan Osorio to tap in.

Toronto had a goal back in the 55th minute, and suddenly looked like a team with the sort of momentum and purpose required to get at least two more.

It's easy to play when you're 3-0 down, and that's what they did...we rode the wave, and we got three points -Bradley Wright-Phillips (newyorkredbulls.com)

That TFC did not score again had much to do with a determined RBNY defensive effort, exemplified by Dax McCarty's 73rd minute intervention to steal the ball away from Jermain Defoe, who had been gifted possession in the six-yard box.

It was a close call, triggered by Richard Eckersley, who dawdled on the ball, then slipped to hand Toronto the chance to feed one of the best finishers in the sport at point-blank range. But McCarty - much as he had done in RBNY's previous game - was alert to the danger.

Despite Shep Messing's protestations on the TV commentary, the fact McCarty picked himself up to rage at Eckersley was every bit as wonderful as his ability to stifle Defoe's chance. He is a leader on this team, and the defense has too often been lackadaisical this season. He backed up his teammate by covering for the mistake, then did his best to ensure it didn't get made again.

In the second half, I'm not too happy with our ability to keep the ball and kind of take the sting out of the game. It's just not good enough -Dax McCarty (newyorkredbulls.com)

This is a team that knows it has to fight past its own shortcomings to find success this season, and McCarty's brief tirade was an encouraging sign that the players will keep that fight going until they have nothing left to give.

RBNY created chances in the second half, but was no better at converting them than Toronto was at the other end. Still, it might have been an even nervier finish had Nick Hagglund not been sent off in the 86th minute for planting an elbow into Armando's head.

It looked to be an unfortunate call: the replay gives the impression Hagglund genuinely wasn't expecting Armando's head to be quite so low. But elbows to heads are dangerous, and the referee shouldn't be basing a decision on intent - outcome is all that is important.

A yellow would have been just fine, but the red card came out and Hagglund left the field, taking Toronto's composure with him. The last minutes of the game were played out as an increasingly tetchy exchange of words and shoves between the players. Bradley effectively stopped playing to focus on yelling at the referee; Jamison Olave, one of the easier players to enrage these days, also appeared more interested in settling scores than finishing out the game.

But a fractious end to the match was to the Red Bulls' advantage, since it served to keep Toronto from any further significant threat on goal.

And the following day, when D.C. United beat Houston by the same score RBNY achieved against TFC, the New York Red Bulls clinched their fifth consecutive playoff appearance.

This season is long past the stage where style counts for anything. The results are all that matter. RBNY will see if it can get past the quarterfinal stage of the post-season at the fifth (and possibly final) attempt in the Henry era.

And the chance to do so was clinched by this result: an awkward but ultimately convincing win, built on hard work - which is just the sort of thing the team will need if it is meet its post-season goals.