A week on from a scoreless draw against New York, Toronto FC once more takes to the pitch at BMO Field to host Trillium Cup rivals, Columbus Crew.
A goal-less affair was never apt to satisfy the cravings, but it was a neat rebound from a rather desperate road trip that saw the club lose two horrible matches – away to Kansas City and Chivas – that offered some evidence that perhaps, given the recent departures - and their apparent mismanagement – the players had begun to lose faith in the TFC brain-trust.
While not a sparkling display, it evidenced a measure of heart and a sliver of desire, two aspects little seen under harsh road conditions.
Goal-scoring has been a limitation of the club all season long – seventeen through twenty matches is a poor return – and in truth, its short-comings were often overlooked for the more pressing issue of conceding late.
An MLS club without its two high-priced forwards will more often than not struggle for goals.
But enough of the head-scratching, there is a match to be played.
It has been slightly more than two months since the clubs last met on May 18 – Columbus won at Toronto 0-1 – but much has changed in Columbus.
New players have risen to fill the gaps left by a moderate injury bug and Coach Robert Warzycha has been tinkering, both with his lineup and formation.
Much of what was written before – Parts One and Two – holds true, but still, a closer look at the Crew is in order.
Columbus enters Saturday’s match with a chip on their shoulder. The last nine matches have not been particularly kind – two wins, five losses, two draws.
On the weekend a close-fought battle with New England unravelled in stoppage-time when the Revolution scored two goals – in the 91st and 94th minutes – to vault further ahead of Columbus in the playoff race; Chicago would take the opportunity to leapfrog them as well, forcing Columbus into eighth place in the East above only Toronto and DC United on twenty-three points from twenty matches.
That loss followed a bye week, but the round previous saw the Crew end a three-match losing skid – home to Chicago, away to KC and LA – with a 1-0 win over Portland, snapping the Timbers long unbeaten streak in the process.
Impressive though the outcome may have been, it was assisted by an early red card to centre-back Pa Modou Kah – the corresponding penalty kick was sent wide by Federico Higuain – before Bernardo Anor nabbed the winner.
Somewhat unexpectedly their only other win in this recent spell, came over a then high-flying Montreal side who entered Columbus with high expectations to face an opponent who had played only two days earlier – Columbus’ US Open Cup match in Chicago had to be pushed back a day due to weather, shortening the turnaround and altering Warzycha’s game-plan, as starters were pulled out of the cup match.
Columbus would drop out of the Open Cup at that stage, losing 2-1 to a rampant Fire, having beaten in state rivals, Dayton Dutch Lions, to move onto the Fourth Round.
Immediately following their win over TFC, they scrapped to draws at New York and against Houston before that three-match unbeaten run was ended by a dismal 3-0 loss in Philadelphia.
Almost forgot; they played a friendly against Wigan Athletic recently – Wigan won 1-2.
May 18 – Toronto 0: Columbus 1
In a match that saw debuts for recent additions Steven Caldwell, Jeremy Brockie and Bobby Convey, TFC fell 0-1 to a goal at the end of the first half from Dominic Oduro.
Robert Earnshaw looked lively, causing all sorts of trouble; as did Higuain who struck both the bar and the post before setting up Oduro for the game-winner.
The play began with Justin Braun being stripped off the ball by Tyson Wahl – Braun thought it a foul, but the official waived play on – Eddie Gaven picked up the loose ball, played up to Higuain on the half-way line, who threaded a well-weighted ball in between the TFC centre-backs.
Doneil Henry was slow in tracking the movement of Oduro, who stole goal-side of the young defender and finished neatly.
Earlier Toronto wasted a glorious chance to go ahead, when Braun whiffed on a cushion header from Luis Silva in plenty of space and with sufficient time from near the penalty spot.
Two long-term injuries – to Eddie Gaven and Brazilian centre-back, Glauber (both suffered knee ligament tears) – provided the impetus for radical changes in the starting eleven.
Several young players – Will Trapp and Chad Barson – have risen to prominence, making their debuts this season, while the return to fitness of Chad Marshall, Josh Williams, and Bernardo Anor have provided a veteran presence and a bit of experience to the side.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Andy Gruenebaum in goal; from right to left – Josh Williams, Chad Marshall, Danny O’Rourke, and Chad Barson across the back; Will Trapp and Matias Sanchez holding with Jairo Arrieta, Federico Higuain, and Bernardo Anor across the midfield; Dominic Oduro atop as the lone striker.
There are plenty of interchangeable parts, which makes forecasting particularly difficult.
Kevan George, a holding midfielder, and Arrieta will only recently have returned from the Gold Cup. Ben Speas is fit again after missing a few weeks. Konrad Warzycha has featured at the base of the midfield in recent matches, while the Finley-Finlay’s (Ryan and Ethan) have seen some time from the bench, in the reserves, and against Wigan. Then there are Justin Meram and Tony Tchani, who have been inconsistent at best.
Against Los Angeles and New England, Warzycha experimented with a slightly more attacking formation, altering the two holding midfielder system slightly moving towards a more diamond-shaped midfield a target/hold up forward, Aaron Schoenfeld in the center of the attack.
Schoenfeld left the weekend match with injury and it is not clear whether he is available.
Regardless of his fitness, it is reasonable to expect the cautious Warzycha to revert to the 4-2-3-1 on the road, even against a struggling TFC.
Gruenebaum has had an issue with his shoulder that saw Matt Lampson step in against Portland – he returned last match and will likely continue.
O’Rourke dropped into the back-line from the midfield and has a good partnership with Marshall in the last three matches.
Canadian defender Drew Beckie has recovered from his adductor strain to feature in the reserves and friendly – it is doubtful he plays a role on Saturday.
Rather than waxing on about the qualities of Higuain, a quote from the last Know Your Enemy: Columbus – "He has not yet scored from a direct free-kick this season after introducing himself as exceptional at the art last season, but his lone goal from the run of play, against Chivas in the season opener, was a stunning right-footed strike from distance."
"Higuain is due for a breakout and Toronto must watch him carefully on Saturday, particularly when he doesn’t have the ball and is probing for those pockets within which to operate."
He would go on to hit the woodwork twice and slice open the Toronto defense for the lone goal. Hopefully lessons have been learned.
Higuain has five goals and six assists this season; four of those goals have come from the penalty spot, while he has had another saved and sent one wide.
His duel with fellow Argentine, Matias Laba, is something to look forward to, now that Laba has started to find his feet in MLS.
Columbus’ leading scorer is Oduro, with eight goals. His speed is well-known, but this season it is the pressure that he applies to defenders that has created chances – grabbing three goals directly from forcing mistakes.
His goal against Montreal is a perfect example – and it was against Montreal – picking the pocket of Collen Warner and stealing in between the spacious gap left by the Impact centre-backs.
Arrieta has struggled to excel in the league, but is a quality forward and a tricky one to deal with – his goal against Kansas City displays his attacking intelligence, stretching the play and timing his strike perfectly to maximum effect.
He will be in good spirits returning from a strong display with Costa Rica at the Gold Cup.
Anor, a diminutive Venezuelan, has proved deceptively strong in the air since returning from a knee injury of his own. He scored headers against both Los Angeles and Portland – from a free-kick and a corner, respectively – and should be watched closely.
Then there are the likes of Josh Williams and Chad Marshall, who are a constant threat on the end of Higuain’s service. Williams has three goals on the season, while Marshall is yet to find one this season after amassing fifteen in his career – he is just about due.
Penalty kicks have played a significant role in Columbus matches this season. They have won six and conceded two, both of which came late against LA.
They are expecting Toronto to play as a long-ball team – if their pre-match quotes are to be taken at face value - Toronto may be able to surprise them early and the first goal is likely to prove decisive.
Columbus has scored first in each of their wins and has yet to win when conceding first (0-7-3); Toronto are 1-1-3 when scoring first and 1-9-3 when conceding the opener. (Win-Loss-Draw)
As for how to score against them, Columbus has been stung recently by turnovers in the defensive third – perhaps to be expected when there is so much player movement in the lineup. Against Philadelphia two goals were created thusly, while New England’s second was just plain embarrassing from Marshall and Higuain.
This plays right into Toronto’s high-pressing style and could prove fruitful on the day, especially if Robert Earnshaw is fit and feeling clinical.
The Crew have not looked good when stretched horizontally across the pitch, this raking Soony Saad ball completely exposed their defense and Kei Kamara finished nicely.
Again, likely a symptom of their shuffling constitution; similarly their marking on crosses from wide position and from set-pieces has been poor.
Both of Chicago’s goals came from wide areas – with Joel Lindpere twice playing provider from open play.
While Josh Williams - victimized above - was also at fault for Jose Goncalves game-winning stoppage-time effort last weekend.
Toronto should use pressure to force turnovers and exploit the wide spaces while committing numbers into the box – a difficulty they have suffered with all season; now is as good a time as any to get it right.
The two sides meet for a third and final time this season on August 17 in Columbus.
The Trillium Cup (the flower, not the fictional mineral of Star Trek lore) – the annual nonsense award to the winner of the series - is still in the balance. Columbus has won all but one of the editions – TFC took the 2011 title.
Columbus has dominated the all-time series between the two – winning nine and drawing seven, only losing once – while outscoring TFC 27-17. The Crew are unbeaten in four against Toronto and have never lost at BMO Field in eight all-time visits.