We used to win games like these: back-and-forth affairs with amped-up visitors to the Arena, decided by a moment of brilliance from a well-compensated star.
There was Dax McCarty's last-minute winner in the helter-skelter 4-3 win over Real Salt Lake last July. Or Thierry Henry's 88th-minute overhead clincher for the 2-1 victory over Montreal Impact in May of last seson. Or, Henry (again) scoring the wonder-goal that settled the sweatbox challenge match against Chicago Fire in July 2012.
Sometimes we didn't win, it just felt that way: like when Jamison Olave slammed home an equalizer in stoppage time against Columbus last May, to stretch the team's unbeaten streak to seven games. The streak was snapped the very next week, when Vancouver sprung a surprise and took three points out of Harrison.
That loss was in week 16 of the 2013 season, and it was the last time the New York Red Bulls lost at home until the playoffs. The team went into a bit of a funk, lost three of four games, but bounced back to win nine of its last 15 and the Supporters' Shield. Good times.
This year, in week 16, the team didn't lose to visiting Canadians, courtesy of a last-gasp equalizer every bit as dramatic and desperately needed as Olave's last year. But it feels different.
Sure, it is exhilarating to see your team throw everything into one final effort not to lose and make it work.
This time around, it was the 94th minute of stoppage time, RBNY down 2-1 to a slick finish from Jermain Defoe and a holy-hell-did-that-just-happen free kick from Gilberto. The team was short on ideas, generally outplayed, and seemingly destined to lose its third consecutive home game.
And then Matt Miazga punts one last hail-Mary from the halfway line to the TFC penalty area, and Tim Cahill gets a head on it to flick the ball over the back line, and Bradley-Wright Phillips steals in behind everyone, and takes the shot first time, on the volley with his left foot: 2-2. Jubilation!
And also relief. And also disappointment.
Disappointment because of the increasingly hard-to-ignore sensation that this team - the reigning Supporters' Shield champs, possessed of the top scorer in the league, stocked with a star of the current World Cup (helluva goal, Tim) and a legend of the game - is rebuilding.
Week 16 may yet prove to be a turning point in the season, like it was when you look back on things last year. In 2013, things got a little bit worse, and then they got a whole lot better as the team found its rhythm and put its hands on the Shield.
But it doesn't feel that way this year.
Results are contextual. An at-the-death tie at home is always exciting, and certainly better than a loss, but it feels different in 2014 when the team hasn't won at the Arena since April 23, than it did in 2013 when it was seeking to extend a six-game unbeaten run. This time last year, the team felt like it was going places; now, it appears to be running to stand still.
RBNY did a whole lot of running this week. For the first 30 minutes, it was largely a question of staying in the game. Luis Robles came up big early on - and, because this is RBNY 2014, he would do so again and again throughout - and the Red Bulls struggled to execute their game plan: feed the burgeoning Lloyd Sam-Chris Duvall partnership on the right flank (they are improving, steadily, as a pairing), see what happens.
And then RBNY broke through in the 36th minute. Thierry Henry threaded a pass into space on the left, Ambroise Oyongo got round the back of the defense, collected, cut neatly on to his right foot for a cross to the six-yard box, and Peguy Luyindula produced a very creditable impression of Tim Cahill - getting head to ball milliseconds before Doneil Henry could get himself in the way.
It was a well-taken goal by Luyindula. RBNY dropped Henry back into midfield and closed out the first-half of a home game with a lead for just the third time this season (the first occasion was the 4-0 shelling of Houston; the second, the match that Chicago ultimately won 5-4).
The second half was distressingly reminiscent of the game against Chicago. Toronto came out strong, as it had in the first half, and finally found the net in the 55th minute. Dominic Oduro is one of the fastest men in MLS, so it is no surprise that he got free down the right hand side of the pitch - however, the build-up to the goal illustrates some of RBNY's defensive decision-making problems this year.
Oyongo was playing in his first ever MLS game, and had already fashioned a goal. Mike Petke likes his full backs to be aggressive and get forward: great.
But when those full backs get isolated, someone needs to pick up on the problem, or the team will get hurt on the break, as happened for TFC's first goal.
Oyongo lost the ball in midfield, it found its way to Jonathan Osorio, who essentially reprised Thierry Henry's goal-creating pass from the first half: a through ball to a wide player, who crossed into the box for a 50/50 contest between attack and defense, which attack won. It happens,
But look at the tape. Henry's pass was excellent because it cut through the space defenders HAVE to leave between themselves to cover the width of the field. He found a line between two defenders who were in position.
Osorio, on the other hand, simply looked up, saw there was no RBNY left back at home, and drove the ball into the empty space for one of the quickest men in MLS - Oduro - to chase. At this point, the defense is tracking back at half pace - trying to hold an offside line of sorts, watching Oduro, with TFC forwards at their backs.
Jamison Olave watches the cross come in from Oduro, accelerates to intercept it, and is beaten to it by Jermain Defoe, who bursts into space Olave cannot cover from a position the center back cannot see (since Defoe is behind him). It was a good finish by a highly accomplished goalscorer, but it was also a simple attack on a wrong-footed defense, and it started with a bad decision in midfield.
It is harsh to fault Oyongo for the goal, though if he doesn't lose the ball the trouble never starts. Nonetheless, his job in this system is to get forward. Full backs running forward with the ball at their feet will get tackled from time to time, and the team presumably has a plan for this. In this case, Oyongo loses the ball, gets knocked over, gets back up, chases the ball - thereby pressuring two TFC players into getting rid of it - and creates the space into which Osorio passes by being completely out of position.
But Oyongo was out of position when he lost the ball. Pressing to win it back is not a silly idea, especially when he has Eric Alexander at his back to...yeah...what exactly does Alexander do during this sequence? He sort of drifts toward the ball, decides to let Oyongo have at it, and hovers around watching his teammate flounder, before apparently realizing it might have been a good idea to cover the vacant left back spot when he turns to follow Osorio's pass and sees Oduro running on to it.
This is not to single out Alexander. The vast majority of goals can be characterized as defensive errors and the reason there aren't more goals is that the vast majority of errors go unpunished. But the sequence was another example of the Red Bulls' lack of defensive cohesion. If you are sending men forward out of defense, and they get caught, someone has to be alive to the danger - or else you're relying on the other team to miss or your 'keeper to do something amazing.
RBNY's outfield is too often left relying on Robles and gun-shy MLS forwards rather than cleaning up its mistakes for itself.
Not that there can be too much complaint about TFC's second goal. Sure, it was a free kick given away in a dangerous position, but Gilberto's first MLS goal was an instant classic. If he keeps doing that, he'll make Toronto a very difficult team to beat indeed; if doesn't, he's the next Eric Hassli.
Gilberto's highlight-reel strike put Toronto FC ahead, and drew Petke into bringing a well-traveled Tim Cahill (he just got back from the World Cup) off the bench for an increasingly desperate chase-the-game attack, culminating in Miazga's hit-and-hope and BWP's mercifully decisive volley for the equalizer.
It was a moment to remind us all this team can get it together as quickly as it can fall apart.
The bright side for the Red Bulls is the side never gave up the fight, and was missing key players everywhere: Roy Miller from the defense; Dax McCarty from midfield; Cahill - until the latter stages - from where ever it is he will ultimately settle in this line up.
Further encouragement can be taken from the fact that we weren't watching an experienced back line get repeatedly humbled by Toronto. Instead, we watched the emerging generation of Red Bulls: Duvall at right back, Miazga apparently now preferred to Armando (it is not yet clear whether Sekagya will reclaim the center back spot when he is no longer required to deputize as a defensive midfielder); and Oyongo, who wasn't good in his first-team debut against New York Cosmos, trusted to fill in at left back.
Petke is playing the kids, at least in defense.
Luyindula once again demonstrated he is the superior creative central midfielder on this team (as well as being just about the only player on the team who doesn't panic when subject to any sort of pressure when in possession); when he was brought off for Cahill, it was largely acknowledgement of the likelihood RBNY was going to have to resort to crowding the box and hoping a long ball fell nicely for someone (which, of course, it did).
And perhaps this recurring nightmare of falling behind at home will work out in the long run. After all, this is the third consecutive game in which RBNY has coughed up a lead at the Arena - and finally it has managed to at least level the score and take a point instead of donating three to the opposition.
Maybe this is all simply an early start on simulating the circumstances of a get-a-goal-or-go-home playoff skirmish.
But Petke started eight of the 11 which got thrashed in its last outing (the changes from the Cosmos game were Olave for Armando, Henry for Steele, and Robles for Meara). He started a conspicuously green defense against one of the most experienced strikers in the league, leaving MLS Cup winners (Kosuke Kimura and Bobby Convey) and more seasoned pros (Armando and Jonny Steele) on the bench.
Richard Eckersley and Connor Lade are presumably seeking out new positions, because they have been passed over so frequently now it is becoming impossible to believe they are being held out of the team for reasons of either form or fitness.
This match could simply be an isolated incident: Petke sending a message to certain players that the team doesn't pick itself when the squad is thinned out by injury and call-ups. But it is the first time in his tenure he has started so many of the younger players in his squad in a MLS match by choice rather than necessity.
There are still more games ahead of this team in 2014 than behind it. Petke's focus can be assumed to be very simply on getting as many points as possible, and getting to the playoffs. The place of this particular game in the overall story of the season cannot be known.
But where ever the team ends up this year, we may look back and identify this match as the end of the so-called era of continuity, and the beginning of a new faith in the club's kids.