Hot off the heels of a midweek cup fixture, Toronto FC dives right back into another this weekend as they host the Columbus Crew, in what could see TFC claim their first silverware of the season.
With the win in the first meeting, another would hand Toronto the vaunted Trillium Cup for just the second time since the competition was instated back in 2008.
But standing in their way are the Crew, who, without Federico Higuain, pose an uncertain challenge.
Without the services of the playmaking midfielder - who has featured prominently in every single match this season, only to pick up a silly fifth booking for preventing a restart against Chicago - just how Columbus approaches this match, namely, who replaces Higuain, is a bit of a mystery.
There are plenty of candidates, but none will truly fulfill the role played by their superstar.
Making his absence all the more troublesome is that since the two last met back on April 5th, Columbus has struggled.
A closer look at this weekend’s foe, the Columbus Crew, is in order.
Columbus started the season with three-straight wins, earning plaudits for their smooth passing and the attacking impetus under new head coach, Gregg Berhalter, but then they ran into Toronto.
The 0-2 loss to the Reds in a sluggish performance at home was followed by a dire run of eight winless matches (four draws and four losses) that only ended this past weekend, 2-0, back at home, against the Chicago Fire on goals from Ethan Finlay and Jairo Arrieta – both of which were, of course, set up by wonderful Higuain assists.
After losing to TFC, Columbus drew their next three – 1-1 in San Jose with goals from Higuain and Chris Wondolowski either side of half-time; 1-1 against DC, Fabian Espindola putting the visitors ahead on the half-hour, only for Hector Jimenez to level in the final minute of the match; and 1-1 against New York, Arrieta from the spot and Bradley Wright-Phillips equalizing in the second half.
Three losses would follow in short order, all without the Crew scoring a single goal, as trips to Kansas City (2-0) and Houston (1-0), as well as the visit of Vancouver (0-1), extended the winless run to seven matches.
With a trip to Portland, that long goal-less streak would finally come to an end after 335 minutes when Higuain chipped Donovan Ricketts with one of his trademark finishes, but not until after former Red, Max Urruti opened the scoring after five minutes.
Higuain would add another from the penalty spot in the fifth minute of first-half stoppage-time to put Columbus in the ascendency.
Will Johnson would square the match at twos in the 80th minute, only for Finlay to reinstate the Crew advantage less than a minute later. But the Timbers, who played nearly an hour with ten men – Alvas Powell was sent off for a rash challenge on Chad Barson in the 34th minute – would not give in, finding another equalizer in the 85th from Sebastian Fernandez.
The losing and goal-less streaks came to an end, but Columbus would have to wait until their next match to finally snap the eight-match winless run, with that 2-0 win over Chicago this past weekend.
In the tenth minute, Justin Meram found Higuain in the centre-circle from whence he threaded an inch-perfect ball inside the Chicago right-back for Finlay to collect, round the keeper, and finish from a tight angle.
Then in the 25th, it was another delicate set-up from the Argentine midfielder, slicing an outside-of-the-boot pass to put Arrieta in behind Patrick Ianni, the last line of Chicago defense, to nutmeg Johnson for the Crew’s second.
Columbus currently sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference on sixteen points from twelve matches with a record of four wins, four losses, and four draws, having scored fifteen goals and conceded sixteen.
At home, that measure of parity is mirrored with a record of two-two-and-two with six goals, both for and against.
April 5th Columbus 0 – 2 Toronto
Toronto picked up just their second-ever win at Crew Stadium back at the start of April on a dynamic performance from midfielder, Michael Bradley.
Bradley scored the opener after just eleven minutes, demanding a ball down the right-side of the box from Mark Bloom, who duly supplied, allowing Bradley to lash a right-footer through Columbus keeper, Steve Clark, from a tight-angle.
Columbus, who entered heralded and perfect, were flat and lacking energy, largely bossed by TFC’s midfield duo of Bradley and Kyle Bekker, while stalwart defensive performances from Bradley Orr and Nick Hagglund garnered much praise.
And on the few occasions that Columbus did threaten, Julio Cesar was on hand to parry any danger, most notably with a fine reaction save on a tricky set-piece routine from Bernardo Anor, while Hagglund’s game-saving block on a Meram shot made Issey Nakajima-Farran’s closer possible in the 85th minute.
Jackson and Justin Morrow did well to maintain possession near the Columbus corner flag, but rather than kill time, they made the Crew pay. A nonchalant poke from the Brazilian sprung Morrow down the right end-line from where he picked out the cutting run of Issey to the near-post for a deft right-booted touch past Clark.
Post-match Berhalter summed up the afternoon thusly, "We had a horrendous start to the game. It was sloppy in every sense of the word -- our defending, our ball possession, our ball movement, our aggressiveness in our movements - and we paid for it. I attribute this loss to two things: Bad start to the game and a very well organized Toronto FC."
He continued, "We thought they were going to come in here and lay down for us, and they weren't, and why would they? This is MLS. Every game is tight, we know that... So we shouldn't have had that attitude, and I'll take that responsibility for that if we did. We have to be ready to play from the opening whistle."
Finlay added, when asked if the result increased the rivalry, "Without a doubt; we relish the opportunity to play against the best in the League and Toronto is a team that came out and spent $100 million in the offseason. We have to know we're up for a fight in the Eastern Conference and for the Trillium Cup with two more legs to go."
Wil Trapp noted, "I'd say [it feels more like a rivalry]. They came into our home field and beat us. That's unacceptable."
Expect an entirely different attitude in the second meeting.
Columbus will not only be missing Higuain, but also two of their recognized starting defenders, with Giancarlo Gonzalez and Waylon Francis away with the Costa Rican national team in preparation for this summer’s World Cup. Thankfully, for the Crew, Michael Parkhurst was trimmed from the US roster and should return to the starting lineup.
The real question is how they will replace the irreplaceable – there is no direct like-for-like replacement, so do they task somebody with his role, or look to mix up the entire formation?
While musing on the subject midweek, Berhalter said, "If you think about guys that can play centrally, Justin Meram we think can play there, Bernardo Anor can probably play there. We could go with two forwards and play Dom Oduro and Jairo Arrieta. We could go with Ben Speas … We could go with Daniel Paladini, he’s more of a midfielder. There are probably seven or eight different combinations.
"Whoever plays there, we’re not going to ask them to do any more than what they’re capable of doing. We’re not going to ask them to be Federico, we’re going to ask them to be themselves and play their game. The person that we choose, we’ll choose because we think their game can help us perform."
Adding to the lineup concerns is a lingering injury to Josh Williams, who was held in reserve last weekend, entering from the bench late.
Their projected starting lineup is as follows: Steve Clark in goal; from right to left – Josh Williams, Eric Gehrig, Michael Parkhurst, and Chad Barson across the back; Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani will sit deep, with Ethan Finlay, Bernardo Anor, and Justin Meram across the midfield; Jairo Arreita as the lone striker.
As mentioned by Berhalter, there are plenty of variations that Columbus could use, perhaps the most likely of which would be to flatten out the midfield and go with a two-striker formation to get both Arrieta and Dominic Oduro on the pitch at the same time.
Finlay and Meram have been their in-form width in recent matches, but both Anor and Hector Jimenez have featured more regularly this season.
Gehrig, had a stellar performance against TFC back in 2012, and did well last week against Chicago could be replaced by Tyson Wahl, if Berhalter opts to have more experience in the back-line, but Gehrig presents a more physical challenge for Toronto’s big targets and would pair nicely with the composed Parkhurst.
Toronto can count themselves lucky that Higuain is unavailable, sparing them the chance of getting beat from chips like this, or passes like this or that.
Columbus’ use of the wide areas to launch their attacks is a prominent feature of Berhalter’s Crew.
By stretching the width they create pockets within which Higuain does his magic. Expect them to use a similar tactic, even without their maestro.
Recall the goal that Dominic Oduro put past Joe Bendik last season, the one that began with a long, cross-field switch that exposed Ashtone Morgan one-on-one and beat the keeper with a low shot to the short side.
The Crew will look to exploit space when the opponent compresses one side with a cross-field switch, then, cutting in towards goal, such as Finlay did here against Portland:
His shot may have required a massive deflection to beat Ricketts, but the threat remains.
Toronto, despite the absence of Higuain, should still be wary of Columbus’ passing ability. Trapp, who indicated his dissatisfaction after the last meeting, can pick a mean ball – and would like nothing better than to do so against TFC:
That late equalizer against DC not only showed the aforementioned cut in from the wide positions (quite the finish from Jimenez), but the hustle and vision from Trapp to snuff out an attack at one end and spring one to the other, will be of some concern should Toronto let the match open up too much.
The second-year homegrown midfielder can also be seen showing his class in the Higuain chip video above, walking through a pair of defenders in the centre-circle (including the ever-tenacious Will Johnson) to play a role in the Columbus build.
On the other side of the ball, Columbus can be undone by the select application of pressure.
In Portland, Williams is stripped by Will Johnson, opening up the attacking left for Steve Zakuani to make use of the space vacated by the fallen defender:
The Crew push their full-backs way up the pitch and when the ball is turned over, they can be caught with defenders well out of position and far too much space to cover.
The same can be said through the middle, as when Espindola opened the scoring for DC. A loose touch from Higuain allowed Nick DeLeon to surge through the massive gap between the centre-backs, turning them on the back-heel and finding his teammate in space:
Even Columbus’ best defender, Parkhurst, can be guilty of an error, caught out by the pressure of Soony Saad for a loose touch, leading to Claudio Bieler’s strike:
Toronto should definitely look to apply pressure whenever a Columbus player finds themselves a little isolated from the build-up – Jermain Defoe, if fit, will have a field day on plays such as that; he did miss the first meeting after all.
And their marking on set-pieces can be atrocious – how Chris Wondolowski gets this open is ridiculous:
If Doneil Henry or Nick Hagglund are in the lineup – Steven Caldwell is suspended – they look to make the most of such lax defending.
The two clubs have met twenty times, with Columbus winning ten and drawing seven.
Five of those draws have come in the nine matches played in Toronto, with TFC winning just once, losing the other three times.
The lone TFC win came last season in July, when the Reds won 2-1 on goals from 2-1 on late goals from Jonathan Osorio and Andrew Wiedeman in the rain, after that early Oduro strike had put the visitors in front.