TORONTO — In a game that seemingly had everything, it was one incident off the field that became arguably the defining moment of the match.
Toronto FC lost Sunday's second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls, but advanced on the away goals tiebreaker by virtue of a first-leg 2-1 victory on the road last week.
And while the score line was certainly something to talk about, there were several incidents that made the game, as TFC head coach Greg Vanney said afterwards, "a little bit about soccer and a lot about nonsense."
The Sunday match featured on-field scuffles, hard challenges from both sides, a deflected goal for the Red Bulls and a pair of goals for Toronto that were called back by referee Chris Penso, but the biggest incident happened in the bowels of BMO Field at halftime.
TFC's Jozy Altidore and Sacha Kljestan of the Red Bulls were ejected from the game in the aftermath of a skirmish that happened near the tunnel that leads to the locker rooms. Both players had already seen yellow for their part in an altercation in the 34th minute, and the bad blood spilled its way into the halftime break.
As bizarre as the ejections were, a little gas was thrown onto the fire in the post-match press conference, when Vanney accused the Red Bulls of instigating the off-field fracas.
"From my estimation and what I've heard, Jozy basically got ambushed in the tunnel," Vanney said. "I just have witness accounts, essentially, and we're working on the video of what happened, but Jozy was followed in and basically confronted. He turned around, and my understanding there were four, five, six Red Bulls people all rushing at him, towards him, at the same time."
TFC captain Michael Bradley, a longtime teammate of both Altidore and Kljestan on the U.S. national team, said that the layout of BMO Field lends credence to the theory the Red Bulls were to blame for bringing the on-field disagreement indoors.
The tunnel that the players use to access the field splits far enough away from each team's locker room that Bradley questioned why Red Bulls players were as close to the TFC room as they were.
"I was late coming in [at halftime], so I didn't see the initial part of it," Bradley said. "My first thought when I got in was, 'what are they even doing here?' Their locker room is in a totally separate part of the stadium.
"They shouldn't even be anywhere close to our locker room, and somehow there's 10 of their players and a bunch of their staff five, seven feet from our locker room. They shouldn't even be here. So right away the red flags go up."
Vanney said that TFC will be reviewing any available video and will consider protesting Altidore's red card.
Every story has two sides, however, and Kljestan said his ejection was unwarranted. The Red Bulls playmaker felt that he was simply standing up for a teammate in the on-field incident that led to his first-half caution, and pointed the finger at Altidore for the altercation that led to their expulsion.
"The first bit was very obvious," Kljestan said. "[Altidore] went to stand over [Red Bulls midfielder] Tyler Adams and went to intimidate him and I came in to ask him to stop and get out of my face and I pushed him back and obviously he fell down, very easily in my opinion.
"At halftime he shoved me into the wall. I have a clear conscience. I don’t feel like I deserved a red card. So it’s a pretty helpless feeling to not be able to play in the second half."
Whatever comes of TFC's own investigation and potential protest, the team ultimately got a result that allowed it to advance to the Eastern Conference final for the second year in a row. For Bradley, that's all that matters.
"Games at this time of year can get turned on their head pretty quickly and the game tonight got turned on its head," Bradley said. "I thought the way that we continued to play, continued to compete, continued to go after it was the way a big team goes after it. We showed real balls tonight, plain and simple. Any other team finds a way to lose the series.
"[The Red Bulls] did nothing. They score a deflected goal which makes the last 30 or 35 minutes tight, but we kept our nerve, we made big plays when we needed 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 tonight."