Toronto FC made a statement Sunday, clawing its way back from a two-goal deficit twice to tie the New York Red Bulls 3-3 in a showdown of Eastern Conference heavyweights.
The single point clinched a playoff spot for Toronto (13-8-8) for the second straight year while maintaining a two-point lead atop the Eastern Conference. But the comeback also sent a signal to the Red Bulls (12-9-9) and other teams who may await in the MLS post-season.
This is not the same old Toronto FC.
"It's not always fair to talk about what would have happened in the past because the reality is it's a different team and not everybody was here in the past," said captain Michael Bradley, who had a goal and assist to help lead the fightback.
"But having said that, we'd have lost this game by a good amount in years past, because at a certain point when things weren't going our way, the wheels would have fallen off and we'd have withered away. And for the ones who now have been around, I think it's a damn good feeling to look around and know on a big day, even when it didn't come all that easy for us, we kept at it and kept at it and got a little bit of a reward."
Added two-goal scoring hero Jozy Altidore: "To stay in this game, to come back, to get a good point in the end, I thought, showed a lot of guts."
Toronto, which spent eight seasons watching the playoffs from a sofa, became the first team this year to qualify for the post-season.
On a day when two goals by Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored for a sixth straight game, and an own goal by Steven Beitashour seemed enough to vault the Red Bulls into first place in the East, Bradley and Altidore dragged the home side even.
Bradley scored a 41st-minute goal to cut the New York lead to 2-1 at the break. And after Wright-Phillips extended the lead to 3-1 in the 48th minute, Altidore scored in the 68th and 86th minutes to complete the comeback.
Altidore pointed to the Bradley goal as a difference-maker.
"It was a huge goal from a guy that leads us," he said. "When we came back in (the locker-room) everybody was riled up, ready to push on because we knew that we're still in this game, we knew chances were going to come. We have the quality to create."
For New York, which would have secured a playoff berth with the win, it was another lead fumbled away. The Red Bulls, who play a demanding high press, have conceded 12 goals in the last 15 minutes of games this season.
"We've shown weakness in these moments," said a frustrated New York coach Jesse Marsch. "It's hard because we do so much in that game well."
TFC has lost just once in its last 10 games (7-1-2). Despite the late collapse, the Red Bulls extended their club-record unbeaten streak in league play to 12 games (5-0-7).
Even without injured Toronto star Sebastian Giovinco, the game featured two of the league's hottest strikers.
Wright-Phillips, aided by some dodgy Toronto defending, upped his season goals total to 20. Altidore, meanwhile, has scored eight goals in his last nine matches.
With New York City FC tying FC Dallas 2-2 Saturday, the BMO Field clash pitted No. 1 (Toronto) against No. 3 (Red Bulls) in the East. Two points separated them at kickoff.
The final goal came when Altidore took a Bradley pass and beat a defender, turning at the edge of the penalty box to fire the ball home. The Toronto forward had scored on a free kick in the 68th minute to pull the home side within one.
Toronto trailed early on the 12th-minute Beitashour own goal. The misery mounted in the 31st minute when centre back Eriq Zavaleta, under pressure, fell on the ball leaving goalkeeper Alex Bono alone to face three Red Bulls. Wright-Phillips made it 2-0 with a cheeky chip.
"We made too many big mistakes against a team that can really capitalize when you give them mistakes," said Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
Wright-Phillips, who set the MLS record for fastest hat trick from the start of a game (27 minutes) the last time the teams met in late May, increased the lead to 3-1 when he was sent in by New York playmaker Sacha Kljestan, who was given too much time in front of the Toronto defence.
Toronto switched to a back three midway through the second half in a bid to find some offence.
It came from a curling Altidore free kick, which Marsch did not think was warranted even though Altidore appeared to be bodied to the ground in a somewhat cynical challenge.
"I think the referee, at 3-1, started calling a lot of cheap fouls for them, so that kind of helped them get in the game" the coach said of referee Robert Sibiga, noting New York was penalized 15 times to seven for Toronto (11-1 in the second half).
Not surprisingly, Altidore disagreed.
"It's a foul ... It doesn't matter if it's on a seven-foot guy or a four-foot-two guy," said Altidore, who stands on the bigger end of that spectrum.
Leading 3-2, New York switched to a back five in an unsuccessful bid to stem the Toronto tide.
One play that could draw further discipline saw Toronto substitute Armando Cooper appear to kick out at fallen Red Bulls midfielder Felipe.
Marsch said he did not see the play, biting back any further comment.
Vanney kept faith with Bono, who continues to keep a now healthy Clint Irwin on the bench. Toronto has gone 8-2-4 in league play with Bono since Irwin went down with a quadriceps strain June 25.
Toronto honoured former striker Dwayne De Rosario prior to Sunday's game.
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