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Know your enemy: Columbus Crew - Meeting the first - March 31st

Right Back Kosuke Kimura had a lot of joy against the Crew.  Can Richard Eckersley do the same?
Right Back Kosuke Kimura had a lot of joy against the Crew. Can Richard Eckersley do the same?

How does one follow up a tense and emotional affair such as the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal witnessed at BMO Field on Wednesday night? How about the first of three matches this season against Columbus?

The Trillium Cup rivals will renew their mild dislike on Saturday afternoon. TFC remain winless in MLS this season, while the Crew responded to a disappointing loss on opening day in Colorado with a solid victory over Montreal last weekend following a by-week.

Last season Toronto took the Cup for the first time since its creation in 2008; a 1-1 draw at home in April - conceding the equalizer to Emilio Renteria after Tony Tchani had scored, then been dismissed for a second booking for excessive celebration, running into the stands to be with the fans - was followed up in September with a rampant 2-4 victory at Columbus - their first-ever win over the Crew - on the strength of goals from Nick Soolsma, Ryan Johnson, Julian de Guzman, and Danny Koevermans, with Tommy Heinemann and Andres Mendoza tallying for the home side.

Columbus - who maintain a 5-1-7 record against Toronto FC - have yet to lose in Canada, but have only won once in Toronto, their other five visits have ended in draws.

The Lineup

Columbus has been rather consistent throughout their two matches thus far, making limited changes to the midfield and attack, as fitness has required.

Andy Gruenebaum has started both matches with nominal first-choice keeper Will Hesmer on the mend - from a sprained ankle suffered during preseason. Hesmer did feature for the first half in a reserve match against Montreal on Saturday night, but it is unlikely he would resume his starting role against TFC, despite scoring that despicable last-minute equalizer in 2010 at BMO.

From right to left Columbus should field a back-line of Sebastian Miranda, Danny O'Rourke, Chad Marshall, and fit-again Shaun Francis; Kirk Urso should maintain his position sitting deep in the midfield, while Eddie Gaven, Milovan Mirosevic, and Bernardo Anor across the top of the midfield, with Emilio Renteria and Olman Vargas paired up top.

football formations

That would be an identical lineup to the one fielded against Montreal on the weekend; but there is little reason to meddle with what worked, especially given a tired and otherwise occupied TFC side.

There could be a few surprises.

Dilly Duka, the expected starter on the left flank, is on the mend from a hamstring injury suffered just minutes into the start of the first match. Fitness allowing he could be on in lieu of Anor; perhaps even rookie Ethan Finlay, who replaced Duka after twelve minutes could take the field.

Former TFC midfielder Tony Tchani is still finding his fitness and form after a difficult and mysterious offseason illness, while Eric Gehrig is a bruising option in the defensive midfield role.

Up top they have few options, and given the success Renteria and Vargas began to find against Montreal, Teen Wolf himself, Tommy Heinemann, will most likely have to be satisfied with a substitute's role.

The Tactics

Columbus' Warzycha has selected lineups - whether intentionally or not - that mirror those of their opponents.

Columbus failed on the road when faced with the 4-2-3-1 of the Rapids on opening day - with Tchani and Urso sitting in the midfield and Renteria alone up top, only to persevere at home against Montreal's much more rigid 4-4-2 - adding Vargas up top, removing Tchani, and fielding Anor on the left for the injured Duka. Granted Columbus' midfield was not as flat as Montreal's, but still the change is noteworthy.

Most likely Warzycha hoped to overrun the midfield on the road and keep the match tight, which they did remaining with a shout at a result until the dying minutes. The result could have looked much different had Marshall's header around the seventieth minute mark had not been pushed over the bar by the Colorado keeper.

Given such a small sample size, and the refereeing decisions that proved decisive in the Montreal match, it's difficult to extrapolate too much information so early in the season - especially for a side that has made key additions at key positions on the field.

Mirosevic, a Chilean attacking midfielder is expected to fill the void - both on the pitch and in the fans hearts - left by the absence of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who departed the club after three wonderful seasons following the 2010 campaign.

Temperamental Peruvian front-man Andres Mendoza was shown the door, following a contentious one-year spell, as were long time servants Robbie Rogers and Emmanuel Ekpo. Costa Rican forward Vargas will need to replace the goals of Mendoza, a task he got a start on with an excellent goal last weekend.

Columbus, as with the rest of the league, fares better historically at home, so that could account for some of the disparity in results. Or perhaps the overhaul will need some time to settle before the true representation of the side emerges.

They looked disjointed in Colorado, having trouble linking up passes, getting ripped apart by the quick movement and tireless work rate of the Rapids. Renteria, isolated up top, was barely a factor until Vargas joined him as Columbus sought and equalizer.

Against Montreal they bossed possession - as one would expect with a man advantage - but conceded more than enough scoring chances upon which a more clinical opponent would capitalize.

They are a very physical side, not afraid of a bit of contact, but are not the biggest team, especially on the flanks and through the middle.

Urso and Mirosevic have been their dead-ball platoon, sharing free and corner kick duties - with Urso taking all eight of their corners and providing service from deep and out wide - thereby allowing Mirosevic to get on the end of the ball in such situations that a direct attempt on target from the set-piece is not available.

Though peculiar for a first-year professional to be given the responsibility of set-piece deliveries, Urso has shown himself to have a nice shape on his service, the composure and the accuracy to be given that responsibility.

The Form

One disappointing road loss, one mediocre home win; it has hardly been a great start to the season for the Crew.

Away at Colorado their game-plan went to pot when Duka went down with a hamstring injury following a tangle with Marvell Wynne after only twelve minutes of play, necessitating the addition of rookie Ethan Finlay.

Despite the setback and the eventual 2-0 loss, Columbus was able to keep the match tight until a wonder-strike doubled their opponent's advantage.

Hosting Montreal proved an easier task, in large part due to the early, dubious red card to Jeb Brovsky and a similarly soft penalty call when Felipe bundled over Emilio Renteria shortly thereafter.

The two goals they conceded in Colorado were both started from the right-flank.

Colorado right-back, Kosuke Kimura and midfielder Brian Mullan were having a good day against Finlay and Francis. Kimura delivered the pinpoint cross from that side that picked out unmarked centre-back Drew Moor for a powerful header from the edge of the six-yard box when a half-cleared corner kick fell to him to open the scoring near the end of the first half..

Colorado's second was also created by Kimura's hard work. He surged down the pitch, cut in-field, and dished off to Quincy Amarikwa cutting in from the opposite flank. Amarikwa continued towards the centre of the pitch and unleashed an unstoppable right-footed blast back across the keeper to the top left corner.

Columbus' keeper, Gruenebaum, could not be faulted for either of the goals allowed, the second strike was unstoppable, while on the first the setting sun was playing havoc at his end of the pitch.

The two goals the Crew have scored were very different.

The first, a penalty kick controversially awarded when Renteria powered his way into the box, and was tripped up by Montreal's Felipe Martins as the Brazilian made an honest attempt at the ball; he may have gotten his toe on the ball, but the spot kick was awarded nevertheless.

The second, Renteria held up the ball, played Francis down the left-side, where the full back sent a cross to the penalty spot.

It was met with a strong downward header, snapped back across the keeper into the bottom corner of the near-post by Vargas.

Movement down and crosses from, the left have been a feature of their attack this season. With Francis back in the lineup and Duka expected to become a key contributor that trend should continue.

Eddie Gaven has yet to show himself to be an attacking factor this season, but should the left-side attract attention it could well create the space for his influence to become more of a factor.


The first goal will be paramount in this match, as whoever can claim it, will be allowed to dictate the game-plan to their opponents.

Toronto needs this game to be over quickly. On less than seventy-two hours rest, in the midst of a four games in ten days run, with limited resources, and an eye towards a bigger prize the longer they have to work in this game, the more likely it is to slip away. Should they be forced to chase a result, not only could the crowd again grow restless, but Winter may be forced to make decisions that are not in the best interest of either this match or the next.

Whereas should TFC take the lead, they can play more patiently, make some substitutions, and strategize with an eye towards the return leg of the Champions League.

Flank play, especially down the right will be very important to the outcome of the match; whoever fills that position will have the dual responsibility of both being wary of the attacking prowess of that side, as well as picking the holes left by their push forward. Just a theory, but Marshall has played as the left-sided centre-back in both matches, perhaps he has moved there to be able to cover more adequately on that side of the pitch should Columbus get caught out there.

Quick transitions will catch the lumbering Crew defense flat-footed, but in order to really take advantage Toronto's finishing needs to be much more clinical.

On that note, Koevermans will score this weekend - or at least - play a key role in goal-scoring. Danny will be upset with himself and the world for missing out the trip to Mexico and will seek to rectify that this weekend.

Both of the goals conceded by Columbus came in the final moments of the half. Whether an issue of concentration, or more likely of fitness - and altitude in Colorado - it could be a weakness to be exploited.

Renteria is as strong as an ox and quite regularly puts himself about, all while scoring at a decent rate. Keeping him quiet without forgetting about his new partner Vargas and the lurking threats of late midfield runs into the box from Mirosevic and Gaven should limit Columbus' chances to trouble the Toronto keeper.

Points of Interest

Columbus is playing their third match of the season; Toronto their sixth. Seldom will you find such a disparity in matches played between opponents so early in the season. It will be interesting to see what selections are made by Aron Winter. Are players rested? If so who? Toronto, given the numerous injuries, are not blessed with a ton of depth. Expect Koevermans and Avila to play the entirety of the match, being unavailable for Wednesday's return leg in Mexico. With Aceval taking a knock he could well be rested, how Eckersley has recovered from the gash he suffered could decide his inclusion. Logan Emory will likely see the pitch and it would not be a surprise to see Adrian Cann make his return for the second half, in order to give Ty Harden a little rest. Efrain Burgos Junior could well make his debut for the club. And what of Kocic? Dare he be risked?

The return of Tony Tchani and the injured Julius James.

Will the bipolar crowd overlook a poor result in another league match, or do they boo and slink away early should the match slip away again?