HARRISON, N.J. -- Faced with a New York pushback in the second half, Toronto FC served a timely reminder at Red Bull Arena that it can defend as well as it can attack.
Now the sixth-seeded Red Bulls, down 2-1 after the opening leg, face an uphill battle Sunday in Game 2 of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinal at BMO Field where league-leading Toronto posted nine shutouts while going 13-1-3 this season.
The Red Bulls need to win and score at least two goals to survive, or at least match Monday's score to force overtime. And given Toronto's offence -- it scored in 31 of 34 games this season and was last blanked at home on March 31 -- that seems a very tall order.
Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch, normally a firecracker on the sidelines, was a muted figure in the first half Monday as a loud, partisan crowd of 18,107 tried to cheer the home town on. At one point, after watching another turnover, he turned away and wiped his forehead in frustration.
Dominant in the first half, Toronto held firm on defence and posed problems with its rapid-fire counter-attack. But despite a commanding edge in play, it went into halftime tied at 1-1 after a stoppage-time Daniel Royer penalty cancelled out an eighth-minute goal by Victor Vazquez.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney anticipated a New York rally in the second and watched his team weather an at-times wild storm.
"We stayed together," he said. "We are as good a defending team as we are an attacking team. And tonight we utilized that as our method of getting the result."
Toronto needed just one chance to pull ahead in the second half, with MVP finalist Sebastian Giovinco, an artist in dead-ball situations, slotting home his seventh free kick of the season in the 72nd minute.
While Toronto led the league with 74 goals (2.18 per game), it ranked second in defence with 37 goals allowed (1.09 goals per game). The Red Bulls tied for seventh on offence with 53 goals (1.56 per game) with 23 of those scored on the road (1.35 per game).
When the defence wobbled Monday, goalkeeper Alex Bono was up to the task.
"We bent, we didn't break," Bono said. "Those are the kind of performances we're going to need to go far in this playoff run."
With veteran Toronto defender Drew Moor unable to play the second half after rolling his ankle on the penalty play, Nick Hagglund was pressed into action and the 25-year-old did not disappoint.
A former starter who lost his job after a knee injury gave Chris Mavinga time to blossom, Hagglund is one of Toronto's most athletic presences. When it comes to aerial challenges, he jumps like he's spring-loaded and he made two big defensive clearances in the air to ease pressure early in the half.
"We knew if we needed him, he would be ready," said Vanney.
The stylish Vazquez exited in the 65th minute after taking a hip to the groin. His seemed more sore than anything else, but Moor's ankle injury looked more troubling.
Once again Toronto forward Jozy Altidore was a physical force, tormenting Red Bull defenders and serving as a transition point from defence to attack. It was his run -- and nifty sidestep around Damien Perrinelle -- and low cross that led to Vazquez's goal after goalkeeper Luis Robles could only parry the ball.
"His contribution was huge," Vanney said of the big forward. "It wasn't on the scoreboard but I think Jozy is more than that. We've learned that over the years that Jozy's the consummate team guy. He'll do whatever he needs to do on the day and he doesn't get too caught up on how many goals he scores.
"We needed him to be the big guy today and he was great."
Vanney, while not totally satisfied by his team's performance, liked its emotion and the result. With 19 returnees from the MLS Cup final loss last year, Toronto is a motivated bunch.
"As we return back to Toronto, there won't be a sense of taking their foot off the gas," Vanney said of his players.
"It's a great result but it's only halfway done," added captain Michael Bradley. "We're not celebrating anything yet."