The New York Red Bulls were well aware that their last performance at home - that yielded a 3-1 loss to LA Galaxy - could not be allowed to stand. They knew they had to rebound quickly: to re-assert the standards that have sustained them more or less since they moved to Red Bull Arena, and because Toronto FC is currently the hottest team in MLS. Another tepid outing would be severely punished by TFC.
And the Red Bulls did improve significantly. Just not sufficiently for a win.
For much of the first half, both sides ran at each other gamely but contained each other pretty effectively in the final third. Once the opening whistle blew the Red Bulls and Toronto FC were exchanging some runs to try and look dangerous, but once both sides got to the final third there wasn’t much offense from anyone inside or near the area.
But it all changed in the 38th minute. Michael Bradley picked up a yellow card for abruptly interrupting Fredrik Gulbrandsen on the breakaway. Up stepped Sacha Kljestan for the free kick. The RBNY captain chipped the ball in to the mixer, Gulbrandsen made space for himself and nodded the ball across goal to an unmarked Bradley Wright-Phillips. But the delivery was a little awkward for the striker, who had to check his run and address the ball with his back to goal. The entire play was designed to deliver a shot on goal at the far post, and it was just a foot or two off the three-touch plan that was presumably its intention: kick-header-header-goal.
BWP wouldn’t let the plan die. Back-to-goal, focused on getting a goal-bound touch on the ball, he contorted his body to what the situation demanded for any sort of shot on frame - which turned out to be a sort of standing bicycle kick.
BWP’s fifth goal of the season, 74th of his career in the MLS regular season, and ninth in 10 career league games against TFC - but not another match-winner for the Red Bulls’ all-time highest scorer.
In the second half, the Red Bulls increasingly struggled to contain their visitors. Ultimately, their resistance was broken in the 69th minute. Michael Amir Murillo was carded for a foul on Raheem Edwards. Benoit Cheyrou diverted a knock-down header past Luis Robles to cap a well-worked play-switching Toronto move.
And then the tension inside Red Bull Arena was cranked up. As the game ticked toward its last 10 minutes, it seemed the referee allowed Jozy Altidore to foul his way into space in front of goal. He couldn’t quite make the opportunity count, but Tosaint Ricketts was ready to collect and re-set the attack inside the area. A panicking Damien Perrinelle put a stop to TFC’s fun in front of goal, but at the cost of a penalty - finding Ricketts waiting for the contact and all-too willing to make sure the ref spotted the inevitable collision.
Jozy Altidore was set to put three points - a seventh-straight league win for TFC - on his team’s list of items to declare when re-entering Canada. But Luis Robles guessed the USMNT forward’s intentions to make an emphatic stop. Red Bull Arena erupted with joy.
An even later chance did find the net. Ricketts thought he had the match-winner with a tap-in from close range, but the offside flag said otherwise.
The offside player was not Ricketts but Raheem Edwards, who stepped over a shot fired at him. The late movement briefly unsighted Robles and forced him into a desperation save - and Ricketts collected the rebound. But players in offside positions making movements that directly influence the goalkeeper’s read and reaction on a shot...well, they are affecting play as surely as if they had touched the ball. The offside call was the correct decision.
“Overall I thought it was a really good game, two teams that really went after it. Toronto is a good team, a good team. I said on TV that it's a little bit hard to swallow because we've kind of been that team in the East the last couple years, and now you look at Toronto, and they're a good team. So you have to give them credit,” said Jesse Marsch after the game.
“Now, I think we can, you know, get better and better and start to become more of an elite team. But right now we're fighting through some certain things. The key is to keep confidence high and keep pushing every day to grow and get better.
But overall, you know, I'm really pleased with the response after the L.A. game because that looked like us, that felt like us. It was a great game. Great game from both sides.”
Granted that the result is not what everyone was looking for, but at least the performance by the Red Bulls showed that they are getting better and improving. Mike Grella looked solid in his first start of the season, putting in 60 minutes of play. And Fredrik Gulbrandsen’s first assist was just reward for combining well with BWP up front.
This game might be best remembered as a tactical turning point for the season. Jesse Marsch rolled out a formation described as a 4-1-3-2, with Felipe deployed mostly as a lone defensive midfielder and Kljestan pushing up from deep positions to key the attack.
The Red Bulls were not perfect, and had to weather some difficult moments as TFC pushed for a winner in the latter minutes. But the draw was not an unreasonable result - and a point against the hottest team in the league surely represents an improvement over the string of losses RBNY was carrying into this game.