Consciously or otherwise, Toronto FC have spent the first few weeks of the season beating the ghost of last year’s MLS Cup final to a pulp.
The knockout blow, of course, will not have been dealt until there is a star above the club crest but it is now safe to assume whenever they are in a match like last December’s, on the front foot with the game on the line, that they will find at least one goal.
When other teams begin to wilt late in games, Toronto turn the volume up to a decibel level Jurgen Klopp would be proud of. They have become a fast, powerful, beast of a side infused with the finesse of a Victor Vazquez pass or Raheem Edwards dribble.
In three consecutive games now, they have looked impossible to stop when a goal behind or tied with 20 minutes to play despite the fact that their best player has not been on the pitch for a single one of those stretches.
Few, if any, teams in MLS have any answer to the depth at Greg Vanney’s disposal. Benoit Cheyrou studies matches from the bench for an hour, and then comes on to turn them. Tosaint Ricketts is the footballing equivalent of Aroldis Chapman, a heat-seeking missile launched as the first fans start to filter to the exits to beat the traffic.
The New York Red Bulls required three major breaks to get away with a point once Toronto had kicked off their late show on Friday night. After Luis Robles had denied Jozy Altidore from the penalty spot, Ricketts hit the crossbar. The Canadian then thought he had won it only for his ‘goal’ to be chalked off by a correct, but so, so narrow offside call.
That’s without mentioning that the hosts’ own goal, scored by Bradley Wright-Phillips before half-time, escaped not one but two possible flags.
Five years to the day since Danny Koevermans bestowed the moniker of ‘worst team in the world’ upon the Reds and just under 12 months on from a 3-0 humbling at Red Bull Arena, Toronto will fly out of New Jersey with Vanney describing the 1-1 draw as “two points dropped” rather than one gained.
“We had a couple of great chances there in the end - one off the crossbar, the PK, one called back - so that’s unfortunate,” the coach said. “But I’m proud of the effort; I thought we bounced back and really brought sort of the intensity and the pace back in the game in the second half.
“The first half everything was just way too slow and because of it we couldn’t really break them down the way that I was suspecting we could.”
That is the other side of the coin, of course; Toronto would not have to roar back late in games if they were taking control of them earlier on.
In their two previous outings, against the Columbus Crew and Minnesota United, they had legitimate excuses for their more lethargic spells, with forced rotation and injuries - suffered both in between and during games - knocking them out of a rhythm. Back as they were on a more regular schedule leading into this match, though, their failure to greatly trouble a fragile Red Bulls team in the first half was disappointing.
Vanney has to take some of the blame there, because if ever there was a game for Edwards it was this one; the Red Bulls have struggled to establish a coherent relationship between their defence and midfield lately and have no established right-back. The incumbent in this match, Michael Murillo, was booked for fouling Edwards within two minutes of the youngster’s introduction and was lucky it was not his second caution of the night.
And while it is strange to say it after another game in which he nearly made the difference, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a case for Ricketts starting. The striker is a priceless weapon to possess but in the first half of this match he completed six passes and had 11 touches; there is really nothing to be lost by fielding, say, Jay Chapman off Altidore - who will now serve a suspension, incidentally, having picked up his fifth yellow card - before turning to Ricketts for the inning he is so devastatingly effective in.
For the rest of the league, though, those imperfections might be the most frightening thing about Toronto; the team leading the league at a two points-per-game pace and with just one defeat through 13 matches is still yet to knit all of its strengths together into one complete performance. They can get even better than this.