A scouting report on the Columbus Crew ahead of Toronto's final game of the season on Sunday. A solid defence, thought a bit withered by injuries, augmented by a couple of attacking signings that didn't quite arrive in time to get them to the playoffs.
Mercifully, the season ends on Sunday.
Toronto FC head into Columbus for their final match of 2012 with absolutely nothing on the line; last place has been clinched, the Champions League is over, hell, even the Trillium Cup has already been decided and Columbus - kindly enough - were eliminated from playoff contention in their last match against DC United to ensure an absolutely meaningless match.
In a season full of meaningless matches there comes a measure of comfort in this one. With a new season, comes a new hope, and though - as of now - there is little to indicate much will be different in 2013, take solace in the close of this campaign.
Never again will the saga of 2012 be relived, of course the possibility of a fresh hell lingers, but for a few glorious stress-free months TFC fans can dream.
Dream of signings and fitness, talk of draft picks and new beginnings; in a way it's almost romantic; almost anyways...
But back to the match; it has been over two months since the sides last met, back then, in those heady days, TFC's winless streak had reached only four matches - it now stands at thirteen - and the Crew were reveling in the form of their new acquisition Federico Higuain, who had begun to light up the league.
Much of what was discussed previously is still valid, but, for the last time this season, a closer look at Columbus is in order.
Columbus was eliminated from the post-season with a 3-2 loss at DC United - a wonderful, electric match at a sold out RFK Stadium - last Saturday and though the bitter disappointment that comes with narrowly missing out is rife - including some muted calls for a change in management, the last few weeks have been quite a ride.
The 2-1 win over Toronto at Crew Stadium back at the end of August began a run of four straight wins that vaulted Columbus back into relevancy, based largely on the form of Jairo Arrieta and Higuain. Their combined attacking presence helped ease the burden on Eddie Gaven, allowing him to excel with the imports opening space and freeing him from the attentions of defences. Gaven scored his ninth goal of the season, the most in his career.
The three matches after the win over TFC were exciting: a 4-3 rollercoaster of a match against New England, with Arrieta sealing his brace and the result with an 86th minute strike on his birthday; in Philadelphia, Gaven stole the points in the fifth minute of second half stoppage-time; and against Montreal it was Emilio Renteria, in the third minute of stoppage-time, who provided the last-minute magic.
But it all started to unravel the next match in New England. It was their seventh match in twenty-one days and thus they came out flat, suffering a 2-0 defeat and a particularly humiliating one given the horrid nature of the own-goal from Chad Marshall that sealed the result.
Losses away to New York and Chicago - 3-1 and 2-1, respectively - on either side of a narrow 1-0 win over Chivas in Ohio followed; again thanks to an 89th minute strike from Justin Meram.
The dramatic endings continued - aided by a touch of officious luck - against Philadelphia with Milovan Mirosevic, despite being clearly and obscenely offside at the time, sealing the 3-2 home win in the 87th minute mere seconds after Jack McInerney had tied the match at twos.
Columbus had begun to run out of steam and the fitness was catching up with them. Gaven again came to the rescue saving the result against Sporting KC, scoring in the 91st minute to salvage a draw against the in-form side in the East and setting up the all-important clash with DC.
A draw with United would have at least extended the campaign into this weekend's match, even with Houston winning over Philadelphia that same night, but desperation got the better of Columbus, who were caught on the break after pushing forward in search of another late goal.
Lewis Neal got on the end of a bit of magic from some of United's less-heralded contributors - Hamdi Salihi, Chris Korb, and the at-times maligned Branko Boskovic - to tap in a 91st minute-winner to seal DC's place in the post-season and end the hopes of the vanquished.
That's the catch with late-game heroics. They can provide, but eventually they will take away.
Columbus will most likely continue to field the 4-2-3-1 formation that has served Coach Robert Warzycha for much of the season. Who will see the pitch however, is a little more clouded.
Columbus, like a few other teams in the league, has been decimated by a rash of injuries that has made fielding a consistent side difficult, especially in the back. Heading into Sunday's match, the Crew have lost ninety-one combined matches from players who could be fielded at centre-back. Ninety-one.
And with news of Danny O'Rourke being unavailable due to a concussion suffered against DC, and Marshall again nursing the sore ankle that kept him out of early season action, that number could increase.
Julius James and Carlos Mendes, themselves often unavailable, are said to be ready for the match, but are both carrying hamstring strains. Note - James is listed as both Out and Probable in the most recent injury report - helpful.
Mirosevic too is troubled by a hamstring strain, putting his inclusion at jeopardy.
With fingers crossed, the projected lineup is as follows: Andy Gruenebaum in goal; from right to left - Sebastian Miranda, Carlos Mendes, Julius James, and Josh Williams across the back; Tony Tchani and Chris Birchall sitting in the midfield and Emilio Renteria, Federico Higuain, and Eddie Gaven above them; Jairo Arrieta should maintain his lone striker's role.
Rich Balchan, who missed the entire season following off-season hernia surgery, played in last weekend's reserve match and may make his debut along the back-line or as a defensive midfielder. Eric Gehrig enjoyed one of his finer performances of the season against TFC back in March and would likely step in if either James or Mendes is unavailable.
Matt Lampson, could perhaps get a run out in goal, having performed admirably in place of Gruenebaum against New England and Philadelphia; Gruenebaum has been a warrior for the Crew and has earned a rest if he so desires it.
Tchani in midfield is admittedly an out-of-left-field suggestion, given the paucity of action he has seen this season, but seeing it is against his former club, it is a worthwhile shout. Cole Grossman could also take that position.
Dilly Duka and Justin Meram could easily man the right-side of midfield, or switch flanks with Gaven, over Renteria, but given the success the burly Venezuelan had against Toronto FC in the last match he deserves the start.
There is some talk that homegrown rookie forward Ben Speas could make his debut, likely as a substitute.
The last match did not start well for TFC.
Four minutes in Gaven opened the scoring when his deflected shot handcuffed Freddy Hall in the Toronto goal, skimming off the back of Dicoy Williams and completely changing direction.
It was a rough day at the office for Richard Eckersley, who took a fierce kick to the face from Higuain - for which he was duly yellow carded, followed by an elbow from Gaven, and then lost his boot while charging forward later in the match.
Darren O'Dea, in his second match for the club, had an interesting night, putting a fine, clattering challenge in on Arrieta before picking up his first yellow card for a boot up the backside - not literally - of Renteria.
Higuain doubled the Columbus lead thirteen minutes into the second half, collecting a tidy layoff from Arrieta after Renteria and Gaven combined to get the ball into the middle of the box. The Argentine playmaker stroked a right-footed finish, high and straight down the centre of the goal as Hall guessed wrong to the side..
Toronto drew one back, a lovely one at that, to provide an interesting final twenty minutes.
Goalkeeper Hall launched a long restart up the pitch; Quincy Amarikwa touched it off to Eric Hassli, who immediately threaded a through-ball for the streaking Luis Silva, sending him in alone. Silva calmly slotted a low, right-footed finish across the keeper.
If only the club had exhibited that sort of play more often.
But despite some moderate pressure, the score remained 2-1 and the Crew reclaimed the Trillium Cup with two wins in two matches.
Toronto must be wary of conceding dead-ball opportunities within range of goal as Higuain has proved himself quite capable, dangerous even; scoring a pair of curling free-kicks in that seven-goal thriller against New England.
Whereas Higuain had cooled off somewhat, enduring a six-match run of being held off the score-sheet before contributing an assist in DC, Arrieta has simply continued to produce - more-or-less - he did go three matches without a point, but nine goals and four assists in seventeen matches is anything but shabby.
Look for him to constantly push the back-line, preferring to operate towards the left, much as Marco Di Vaio does for Montreal, with a little bit more mobility and activity than the venerable Italian.
Interestingly, Arrieta leads the league, having drawn forty offside flags in his seventeen matches - Di Vaio is second with thirty-six in sixteen, tied with Alvaro Saborio of Real Salt Lake, though he has played fourteen more matches than Montreal's striker.
The interplay between Arrieta and Higuain is the most dangerous aspect of the Columbus attack, but in focusing too much on them spaces will open for the likes of Gaven, Renteria, Duka, and Meram.
Of some interest to TFC fans, Tony Tchani has used his limited action to display some of the skills that saw him so highly touted in the past.
As mentioned in an earlier preview, Williams is dangerous attacking the back-post on set-pieces; keep an eye out for Marshall to make occasional near-post runs to draw defenders away from that back-post or make contact of his own.
Columbus' high back-line and lack of team pace has caused them some troubles of late, they have regularly been caught slow on the turn and conceding too much space in behind for quick breaks and counterattacks.
With so many shuffles among the back-four it is not unusual that it is missing some cohesion, but their abysmal marking - allowing free headers:
And susceptibility to falling asleep and conceding from throw-ins is unforgivable.
One more, to end the season in the right spirit - So open; terrible miss.
Sunday, Crew Stadium will celebrate Fan Appreciation and African Heritage Night. Everyone who attends will win a prize, and a special tailgate will be held pre-match. A video recorded by Tchani will air and the final of a local tournament, the African Cup USA, will be played - this edition features Ethiopia and Djibouti.
This season is Eddie Gaven's tenth season in MLS, all at the tender age of twenty-six. Wow.
The Inside the Crew podcast is worth a listen, especially tomorrow previewing the TFC match.
So concludes our long-running series, previewing Toronto FC's upcoming opponents, giving readers a glimpse of what to expect and of what to be wary.
Hopefully, you've enjoyed the ride, despite the awful, awful season. Thanks for reading and please feel free to leave any comments, suggestions, etcetera below.