There was a bit of deja vu on display at BMO Field today. For the second straight year a dramatic match against the New York Red Bulls saw Toronto FC clinch a playoff spot. Today's come from behind 3-3 draw at BMO Field was just enough for Toronto to get an "-x" next to their name in the standings.
This time, however, there are five games left in the season, Toronto FC did all of this with plenty of time to spare. This game was about more than just sneaking into the playoffs. It was about the Eastern Conference title race, and at this point even the Supporters Shield isn't out of the question.
It was an accomplishment when Toronto clinched its first ever playoff berth. There was celebration, in the stands, on the field and in the dressing room. There was nothing like that this time around. This year's Toronto FC team isn't just content with participating, it is clear they want to win.
"Everybody should feel good about officially being [in the playoffs]," said Toronto captain Michael Bradley after the match. "But the way things have gone this season when we look at ourselves, when we look around the league at other teams, we feel like there's a lot more out there for us."
There is one player who should be feeling particularly good about himself lately, and that is Jozy Altidore. With Toronto FC trailing 3-1 in the second half, he rescued a crucial point for the club by scoring a pair of goals. He now has eight in his last nine games and is playing the best soccer of his MLS career, perhaps his career in general, at the perfect time for Toronto.
For a man who has taken a lot of criticism this year, Altidore is stepping up when the team needs him most. With Sebastian Giovinco once again rested for today's match with injury, Altidore provided the scoring punch that was needed. He even took over on set pieces, firing a long range free kick into the top of the net over Luis Robles.
"We've said it all along that his value to our team is immeasurable," said coach Greg Vanney. "His value in terms of personality, his size, his workrate, everything that he brings to us is massive."
Toronto FC might not have even been in a position to pull out a late comeback, however, if it wasn't for the play of Bradley. After conceding a pair of early and avoidable goals, Toronto FC looked a little bit shellshocked. For the most part they had outplayed the visitors, but had a 2-0 deficit to show for their efforts.
That's when Bradley took the team on his shoulders, so to speak, energizing his teammates. He led by example, chasing down every loose ball and playing with intensity. It was no surprise when it was Bradley who popped up to score his first goal of the season just before the half. It was a massive goal, one that put the wind back in Toronto FC's lifeless sails.
"It meant a big difference coming into the locker room at 2-1 versus coming into the locker room at 2-0," said Vanney, who described the room as still upbeat at the interval. "It would have been a different feeling, that's for sure."
Toronto never should have been in a position to make such a heroic comeback, however, but some poor defensive play early in the match forced their hand. New York's high press caused a lot of problems in the early stages, especially for Eriq Zavaleta who had probably his worst game of the season. On New York's second goal Zavaleta lost his footing, allowing Bradley Wright-Phillips an easy path to goal.
In the past, moments like that would have sunk the ship. But the press also happened to be New York's undoing, as it has been at times all season. They seemed too tired to contain Toronto, particularly Altidore, in the second half, and it cost them a pair of points and what would have big a huge win away from home.
For Toronto, now, it's about keeping the momentum going. After Toronto clinched a playoff spot last season, they seemed to let their foot off the gas. They would never win again in 2015, losing their final two games of the regular season before being stomped 3-0 in the playoffs by the Montreal Impact.
"We discussed as a team back in mid-July, we need to start playing for the playoffs right now," said Drew Moor. "You can't just flip a switch all of the sudden when the playoffs start and expect to be ready to go. I think a lot of these guys learned that last season going into the playoffs."
After all, last year the playoffs were a destination. This year, Toronto FC will be hoping, expecting really, that qualifying for the playoffs is just the starting point.