At one point last summer, anything seemed possible for Toronto FC. After a rough start, the expansion side earned 20 points over a 13-game stretch heading into the All-Star break, and the team's long-shot playoff hopes began to flicker a bit. Then depression set in, as TFC embarked on a devastating winless streak caused largely by injuries that decimated the side's wafer-thin roster.
Yet through it all Toronto and its fans have persevered. BMO Field continues to draw 20,000-plus crowds that are the most passionate in the league. And on this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), the New York Red Bulls will get a first-hand look at Toronto's intense atmosphere while trying to further solidify their playoff position.
Five story lines to watch
1. A prime-time designated player
If there was a poster boy for the designated player rule, New York forward Juan Pablo Angel would be it. The Colombian's 17 goals have already broken New York's single-season scoring record, and even though he's now receiving more attention from opposing defenses, Angel's versatility has allowed the goals to keep flowing.
"Earlier on we were getting balls into [Angel's] feet a little bit more, and combining," said New York assistant John Harkes. "Now, I think we've been finding him a little bit more in the air, because he's so good with his head."
2. One streak ends, another continues
Toronto's record of 824 minutes without a goal came to a merciful end against the Columbus Crew on Sept. 22, but the team's 12-game winless streak remains intact. Real Salt Lake's record of 18 matches without a win is looming on the horizon, but that isn't factoring into any of coach Mo Johnston's decisions.
"[The streak] doesn't add any pressure, and it doesn't interest me," said Johnston. "We're looking ahead. We'll keep this [core] group together, and then obviously there will be six or seven changes next year."
3. Will Reyna heal in time?
The reviews haven't been as kind to New York's other designated player, Claudio Reyna. The former U.S. national team captain hasn't played poorly, but questions remain as to whether Reyna has been worth his hefty salary. The Red Bulls' midfielder had stepped up his game in recent weeks, but a sprained toe ligament in Reyna's left foot has put his participation in Thursday's match in doubt.
4. The cauldron that is BMO Field
Yes, Toronto is in last place, but you'd never know based on the fan support the team is getting. The stands are a sea of red shirts. The singing and chanting go on all game long, making for a Euro-style atmosphere. And lest opposing players forget it, they'll be doused with confetti and streamers before every corner kick.
"Our fans are the best in MLS," Johnston said. "When they're right into it, it's tremendous. The other teams feel it, and our players feel it. They've helped us in certain games, and obviously we need to just add a little bit of depth and make them happier. Of late it's been a bit of a burden for them because of how we've played and because of our lack of depth."
5. The Red Bulls' matador defense
OK, so it's not quite that bad, but New York's defense is firmly ensconced in the bottom half of MLS, in a three-way tie for eighth. Given the Red Bulls' attacking weapons, preventing goals remains the biggest stumbling block to New York's goal of a championship.
"It's just our individual one-on-one focus," Harkes said of his team's defensive struggles. "We need to have a little bit more of that, especially going against a team like Toronto who has a very direct style."
Five players to watch
1. Maurice Edu, M, Toronto
In a season of struggle, Edu has been one of the brighter lights, delivering on his promise as the No. 1 overall pick in January's MLS SuperDraft. The Maryland product began the year on the injured list, but since joining the lineup in the third match of the season, his all-action displays have Johnston convinced that Edu is a midfield player he can build his team around.
"I could take another 10 of [Edu], to be honest with you," Johnston said.
2. Dane Richards, M, New York
Richards is another rookie who has excelled, making Thursday's match with Edu the latest skirmish in the battle for the Rookie of the Year award. Like many first-year players, Richards started strong but then hit the wall during the summer. Lately, though, the Clemson product has regained his form, using his electric pace to torment defenses and set up goals for the likes of Angel and Francis Doe.
"I think Richards has gone way above our expectations," Harkes said, "He's a player that a lot of other teams have to focus on and be concerned about when he steps on the pitch."
3. Jim Brennan, D, Toronto
The Canadian international has been Johnston's designated utility man this season, lining up at left midfield, left back and in the center of the defense. With Tyrone Marshall suspended due to yellow-card accumulation, it will likely fall to Brennan to fill the gap and try to slow the white-hot Angel.
"[Brennan] has been one of the guys who has stepped up," Johnston said. "He's never missed training, he's always been in there, and he's someone a coach should always love to have."
4. Francis Doe, F, New York
Signed by the Red Bulls in August, Doe stepped into a starting role when Jozy Altidore went down with a calf strain and has been an immediate hit, scoring in each of his past two games. The Liberian's speed has proved to be a nice complement to Angel's play in the box, but with Altidore approaching full fitness, Doe will need to keep playing well to hang on to his spot.
5. Jeff Cunningham, F, Toronto
Cunningham's impact since arriving in Toronto has been limited due to a hernia injury, but with the U.S. international healed at last, he's ready to add some more potency to a Toronto attack lacking in that area. Cunningham's greatest asset is his pace, so look for him to run at the heart of a New York defense that isn't the fleetest of foot.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.