New York head coach Jesse Marsch said he was throwing out most of the tape from his team’s 1-0 win over Toronto FC on Sunday night at BMO Field. The Red Bulls were not outplayed, but they were a step or two off their normal pace, needing a herculean effort from their ironman between the posts.
The game was the ultimate test of poise for the 34-year-old goalkeeper Luis Robles, who was called on to make big save after big save throughout the second half, after seeing so little of the ball in the opening 45.
His first goal robbery came with only 57 seconds elapsed in the second half. Toronto FC forward Jordan Hamilton sprinted behind Red Bulls defender Tim Parker, picking up a Michael Bradley pass in stride, on the edge of the penalty area, in a moment that promised to be an equalizer.
“Yeah, so I definitely, in a way appreciated that opportunity that Hamilton had, because it was so early on I didn’t really think about it,” Robles said after the match. “It was a bang-bang play, and now, all of a sudden, I’m locked in.”
Robles stood and absorbed Hamilton’s curling shot, one of eight saves that he managed in the win, the most for him since a 13-save masterclass in Estadio Caliente on March 6. New York won that game as well, 2-0, in what was the first leg of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal with Club Tijuana.
The connection between that circumstance and Sunday is coincidental but also poetic, considering how Toronto FC’s season has been characterized by a diagnosis of “CCL hangover.”
The defending MLS Cup champions – whose run in the CCL fell short in the two-legged final – currently sit at tenth place in the Eastern Conference, eight points out of a playoff spot. The Reds, at a gargantuan payroll by MLS standards of $26.2 million – more than three times that of the Red Bulls – have the worst value for their dollar in the league.
But even with its struggles, Robles knows that this star-laden Toronto FC team is a sleeping giant. This is the same Toronto team that eliminated the Red Bulls from MLS Cup contention last November, in a two-legged series where emotions spilled over inside the very BMO Field tunnel both teams walked out of on Sunday.
“Toronto’s the defending champions, they’re the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion,” Robles said. “And when you look at that roster, you know that…there’s so much, there’s so many good players there, there’s so much quality and talent.”
“So, in my opinion, it’s great that teams like Atlanta and Columbus and New York City and ourselves are doing so well, but, Toronto’s still the team to beat,” Robles went on to say. “And, until someone changes that, that’s – in my opinion – the standard right now.”
Marsch talked after the game about how this type of season – where formulas that worked before are unexplainably ineffective – can happen. Robles elaborated how the match was a chance to further pile the odds against Toronto, making an almost inevitable late-season run for the Reds three-lost-points harder.
But with 78 minutes gone, Toronto was handed a lifeline, after video review determined Tim Parker had committed a handball in the box worthy of a penalty.
At 5-foot-11, Robles needs a few things to save a penalty kick. The first is something that stands for any goalkeeper, and that is, the penalty has to be in a position he can get to, meaning not all the way tucked into a corner and roughly waist height or below.
The second, also true of any goalkeeper, is a correct guess on where the penalty is going.
However, the third factor is particularly imperative for Robles, and that is an impeccable jump on the ball.
The Red Bulls’ captain later admitted that he had made his mind up about where to dive for a potential penalty prior to the match. And so, when a struggling Sebastian Giovinco made contact with the ball, Robles was already springing toward his right, allowing himself the split-second advantage he needed to punch away the attempt and preserve the shutout.
From there, the game became a test of resolve, for a team that has personified resiliency throughout the season. Having played across three competitions (24 total matches in 2018), the Red Bulls have lost only six games, and they are the only team in Major League Soccer to have not lost a game by more than one goal.
Even in cup defeat, the Red Bulls have not gone down without a feeling of hope until the final whistle. Down two goals, expect them to pick themselves up and pull one back. Down to 10 men, watch them score two more goals and deliver a three-goal drubbing. Concede a penalty on the road in a ravenous environment, witness their captain and goalkeeper rise to the occasion.
It’s easy to talk of resolve, but the Red Bulls are not only speaking about character in the post-match, but displaying it on the pitch. Sunday’s star was a man known for being MLS’ Ironman, but, truth be told, there is something collectively unique and heroic about this entire Red Bulls team.
“For us it wasn’t the prettiest, it wasn’t necessarily a showcase game for us,” Robles said. “But, what’s great, and what continues to reflect the character in this locker room is, the grittiness, the gutsy performance of the guys, and this never say die for 90 minutes.”