The New York Red Bulls did it again: they went on the road, opened up a two-goal lead, and then - helplessly and haplessly - watched it fall. A 3-3 draw against Toronto FC in Toronto is not a bad result; not this season when TFC has established itself as a contender for silverware, with or without its talisman, Sebastian Giovinco. But a 3-3 draw when you were leading 2-0 after 31 minutes and 3-1 after 48...that is not good.
Credit TFC, of course. The result was a fair reflection of a game in which the two teams matched each other, pretty much, shot for shot.
Toronto played well, and was unlucky to be 3-1 down for a while mostly because it could just as easily have been 4-3 up. It will be pleased with the fightback and disappointed with having fallen into a two-goal hole in the first place.
But RBNY also played well. And for the Red Bulls the result was not a fair reflection of a game they had been winning from the 12th minute to the 86th. It was instead a fair reflection of a frustratingly familiar feature of this team at this moment - which seems like a good place to start three thoughts about the 3-3 tie in Toronto.
1. The vincible invincibles
The Red Bulls missed yet an another opportunity to take three points off an opponent. Yet again, they didn't lose, but couldn't hold on to a two-goal lead for the win. It is the surprising story of what has become perhaps the most extraordinary unbeaten streak in RBNY history: one that has brought frustration and celebration in almost equal measure.
The team has established a new club record for not losing in MLS: 12 consecutive games since it last lost in the league. And it has established a confounding habit of coughing up two-goal leads in that stretch.
On July 17, in the third game of the current streak, the Red Bulls were pegged back to 2-2 in Chester, PA, after going 2-0 up on Philadelphia Union. On August 7, six games into the streak, LA got two goals back in the last 10 minutes - and ducked a late penalty appeal that might still have allowed RBNY to take all the point. On August 21, D.C. United bounced out of a 2-0 hole for a 2-2 tie. On September 11, DC repeated the trick at Red Bull Arena, becoming the first team ever to not lose to RBNY after falling behind by two goals in Harrison. And just a week later, RBNY twice found a two-goal lead against Toronto - and still gave it up.
When five games in two months are ties that had looked like they might be wins, it is an unsettling trend - especially in a league that asks its teams and fans to care most about a quick-fire knockout series at the end of the year. The 12-game unbeaten streak is impressive, and it is the reason RBNY will be in the playoffs this year despite a cataclysmic start to the season. But you can't blame anyone for overlooking it when the entire season is going to come down to the team's ability to close out a winner-takes-all game or two. RBNY is getting increasingly prone to succumbing to the pressure exerted by an opponent determined to chase the result all the way to the final whistle - and that is what RBNY can expect to face in the post-season.
The longer the Red Bulls stay unbeaten, the better they are playing as a team: that is the standard logic of soccer and RBNY is no exception. And at the same time, a team that habitually drops two-goal leads is not a good team: that too is a standard point not worth debating, and RBNY is no exception to it either.
A 12-game unbeaten streak doesn't win you the playoffs because there are not 12 games to be won in the playoffs. A 12-game unbeaten streak can win a league title, but RBNY keeps backing away from challenging for the Supporters' Shield by dropping points at inopportune moments (the win missed this week cost the team a chance to take the lead in the Eastern Conference and gain ground on league-leading FC Dallas).
So fans find themselves in a tight spot: cheering RBNY's best-ever run of consistency, and finding it infuriating. As the streak gets longer, the frustration gets greater because the Red Bulls keep finding new ways to explore their favorite theme of 2016: taking a two-goal lead and then watching it get taken from them. It's hard to get too mad with a team that doesn't lose, and it's hard to be happy about one that keeps choking on opportunities to win.
Last week, we saw this streak's first presentation of the draw-from-the-jaws-of-victory routine at Red Bull Arena. This week, we saw RBNY tease with a new twist: go up by two goals twice in the match, and still slump to a tie.
The team is still unbeaten, ergo it is getting better. The two-goal leads lost are getting more frequent (three in the last five league games), ergo that habit is getting worse.
This is neither the best time nor the worst time to be a fan of RBNY, but it might be the most confusing time.
2. Five-at-the-back still doesn't work
If at first you don't succeed, it's fine to try and try again - that is the usual advice, after all. But Jesse Marsch is sorely testing conventional wisdom with his conviction that a five-man back line can protect a lead.
It is not, of course, a controversial idea: teams bolster their defense to close out a game all the time. Marsch has done so successfully in the past. But for RBNY's 2016 edition, the tactic is kryptonite.
We've seen it too much this season: the Red Bulls take a lead, the game drags on, legs get tired, the opponent gathers momentum, and Marsch throws in a fifth defender to boost the back line. And then the wheels come off the team.
In this game, the five-man defense was in place from around the 70th minute, when Sal Zizzo stepped in for Alex Muyl. It had no great effect on Toronto's momentum, and Jozy Altidore equalized in the 86th minute.
Fresh off a relatively brave, positive set of in-game adjustments in CONCACAF Champions League in mid-week, Marsch fell back to a more standard line of thinking in Toronto: the team needs more defense, so it needs more defenders.
It has been a while since we saw the five-man back line stretched across the field for RBNY, and it may be a while until we see it again because it didn't work, again. "If at first you don't succeed..." is fine advice. But when Marsch reaches for five-at-the-back these days, it calls to mind another line of thinking: the one that suggests it is a sign of insanity to continually repeat the same action in the hope of a different outcome. The return to a tried-and-failed method is a concern.
The concern is that the 2015 MLS Coach of the Year has run out of ideas for his 2016 squad.
3. Bradley. Wright. Phillips.
He scored his 70th goal in all competitions for RBNY in this game.
Pressure, finish, walk away. @TheRealBWP— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) September 18, 2016
And then he added his 71st.
He has added another MLS record to his list of achievements in the league: he is the first player to twice score 20 goals in a single regular season. And he has now scored in each of his last six MLS appearances (a total of eight goals in that stretch).
We are watching one of the club's all-time greats make RBNY history in real time.