Despite the global pandemic and all that comes with it, league-leading Toronto FC is somehow ahead of its 2017 championship year pace.
Having clinched a playoff berth with its 1-0 victory Sunday in Cincinnati, Toronto (11-2-4) looks to match a club record with a sixth straight win Wednesday when the New York Red Bulls (7-8-2) visit TFC's pandemic home in East Hartford, Conn.
Toronto is two points ahead of where it was in 2017 after 17 games (10-2-5), averaging 2.18 points a game, compared to 2.03 points three years ago.
And that comes despite some serious turnover. Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, Victor Vazquez and Sebastian Giovinco, who all started the 2017 final against Seattle, have moved on. Alex Bono, who was in goal for the 2-0 championship win, is now Toronto's backup 'keeper.
"It's not really a fair comparison, but what I will say is this team shares similar qualities," said defender Eriq Zavaleta. "Resiliency, our togetherness, the strength of our squad from top to bottom. I think this is also a special group.
"It's never easy to compare different groups, but specifically in this scenario it's even more difficult. But what you can see is a team that's together, that's talented and that's professional. And you can see that reflected in the standings."
The togetherness was shown Monday when the team celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving with a turkey dinner at its Hartford hotel. Defender Omar Gonzalez was feted with a cake for his 32nd birthday with the big Texan showing COVID-19 dessert protocol by waving his hands to extinguish the candles rather than blowing on them.
Wednesday's game is the fourth in 12 days for Toronto, which faces Atlanta on Sunday.
The congested schedule has not been a problem. Toronto is undefeated in seven games (6-0-1), a run that also includes victories over Montreal, New York City FC, Columbus Crew SC, the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution.
Vanney made seven changes to his starting lineup last time out with the likes of Ayo Akinola and Pablo Piatti on the bench and Chris Mavinga not even making the trip to Ohio.
"I think our depth has really helped us to endure this," Vanney said of the 2020 on-again-off-again campaign. "The camaraderie of our team and guys' willingness to work together and put ego aside and do what's best. And also to manage difficult circumstances. All of it has helped us to be successful."
TFC has lost just two of 27 regular-season games (15-2-10) since a 2-0 defeat at the Red Bulls on Aug. 3, 2019. A 3-1 loss to NYCFC on July 26 in round-of-16 play at the MLS is Back Tournament doesn't count because the knockout rounds of the competition did not factor into the standings.
Toronto has won six straight in league play twice before, both in 2017 (April 21-May 13 and Aug. 12-Sept. 6).
Red Bulls interim head coach Bradley Carnell, a former South African international who joined New York as an assistant coach in March 2017, is focusing more on his team than the opposition.
"It's just about growth. Growth with our group," said Carnell, who continues to run the team on the sidelines while the newly appointed Gerhard Struber awaits his visa. "We just want to move on game to game. The last game, we earn a shutout and we earn three points away from home (1-0 in Atlanta). So pretty much the same recipe (against Toronto).
"On that note, congratulations to Greg and his team They've been really good this season, really dominant in many areas."
"I think we all enjoy really playing Toronto," added Red Bulls captain Sean Davis. "It's a clash of styles. They're a team that really loves the ball."
The Red Bulls, meanwhile, are famed for taking it away via their high press. The New Yorkers lead the league in possession won in the final third of the field, according to Opta.
Saturday's win in Atlanta snapped a two-game losing streak for the Red Bulls.
Caden Clark's 47th-minute winner, a highlight-reel volley, came just hours after the teenager signed a homegrown player contract. At 17 years 136 days, Clark became the fifth-youngest player in MLS history to score in his debut.
"It's just another tick in the box for this organization with the ability to spot talent and the ability to give young players good chances and realistic chances when we think the timing is right," said Carnell.
Clark became the third-youngest goal-scorer in Red Bulls behind Eddie Gaven (16 years 253 days) and now TFC striker Jozy Altidore (16 years 314 days). He is also the fifth-youngest MLS player to score in his first game, according to Elias Sports Bureau (the fourth youngest was Toronto's Fuad Ibrahim who was 16 years 332 days old when he scored on July 12, 2008).
Altidore tweeted his congratulations after the impressive strike.
"What a goal and what a moment for the young kid," he wrote.
The two teams have other ties.
Toronto GM Ali Curtis was sporting director with the Red Bulls prior to joining TFC. And the two sides took part in an ill-tempered Eastern Conference semifinal in 2017 that saw a tunnel melee at halftime. Toronto lost that game but still advanced on the away goals rule after the series ended in a 2-2 tie on aggregate.
"Every game is challenging," Davis said of playing Toronto. "Every game is intense, it's demanding ... It does seem like everything is ramped up a notch when we play each other."
In other Toronto team news, Vanney says captain Michael Bradley is "very close" to returning from his knee injury. "I don't necessarily think it will be (Wednesday) but ... hopefully by the weekend."
Asked about his contract negotiations, Vanney said talks are going well. "We're very close," he said.
NEW YORK RED BULLS (7-8-2) VS. TORONTO FC (11-2-4)
Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Stadium at Rentschler Field.
HISTORY: The Red Bulls hold a 16-9-7 career advantage over Toronto, with 12 of those wins coming at Red Bull Arena. New York has won three of the last four regular-season meetings, posting three clean sheets while outscoring TFC 6-3.
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY SCORER: Red Bulls' Daniel Royer has scored against 21 of the 25 other MLS teams, with only FC Dallas, Houston, Orlando City and expansion Nashville left on his to-do list.
RED BULLS PRESSURE: New York is 76-13-18 when scoring the first goal since 2015 when it implemented its trademark "high-press" system.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press