Refreshed and ready; hopefully, at least.
A week removed from an enjoyable win over Montreal last Saturday, Toronto FC will return to the pitch this weekend against another so-called rival, the Columbus Crew.
July was a cruel month. The matches came thick and fast; there was little time to catch one’s breath. Despite the gauntlet of ten matches in 38 days, TFC, though they stumbled, did not fall and they enter this next phase of the season in third place in the East, with two games in hand on the four teams chasing them.
The top of the conference may be out of reach, with KC and DC ahead by ten and eight points ahead, respectively, as such, the focus will be on sealing up that third spot. New York is a point behind, Columbus two, New England three and Philadelphia five.
There are four matches left in August, two of which will be against those direct rivals and September begins with a tricky back-to-back, home-and-away series against Philly, another direct competitor.
Excessive optimism may have hoped that Toronto would have used the busy stretch to truly contend with the best in the league, but the realities of MLS, in a spell such as that, mean one must view surviving as a measure of success. With July in the rearview, now is the time to assert oneself on the table.
Winning in Montreal , the second of four-straight away-matches, was a good start and Trillium Cup rivals Columbus represent the next step. This season’s rendition of that two-team trophy has already been sealed up, with TFC winning both of the early meetings; Columbus will be eager to avoid the sweep.
Previews from the last meetings, still ring true, but still, a closer look at this week’s opponent, the Columbus Crew, is in order.
Columbus enter the match riding a three-match unbeaten run and holding on to the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference by a single point over New England with 27 points from 22 matches.
Their loss to TFC at the end of May began a rough stretch that saw them go winless through their next six matches, beginning with a series of four-straight draws: 1-1 against Salt Lake, 0-0 away to DC, another scoreless result against Dallas and 1-1 away to Colorado, spanning the World Cup break.
During the hiatus they played two US Open Cup matches, winning 2-1 over Indy Eleven at home in the fourth round in extra time before falling out in the fifth away to Chicago, 4-2.
That series of draws gave way to further disappointment, getting hammered 4-1 in New York before falling 1-2 at home to Kansas City, the match decided by a 93rd minute Benny Feilhaber rocket.
The Crew would regroup three days later against the Impact, winning 2-1 on a stunning brace from Bernardo Anor after Marco Di Vaio had given Montreal a surprise, first-half lead.
Confidence from ending the seven-match winless run showed the following weekend in New England, resulting in a 1-2 win for the visitors, condemning the Revs to an eighth-straight defeat. Federico Higuain gave the Crew the lead into half-time, but AJ Soares responded minutes into the second frame, only for Ethan Finlay to latch onto a lovely long pass from Justin Meram to find the winner in the 84th minute.
A two-game winning streak was good enough to rise back into the playoff spots – jumping from seventh to fifth – but they could not extend it further, dropping precious points by drawing 1-1 away to Chicago with Mike Magee scoring from the penalty spot in the 37th minute after Tyson Wahl handled in the area and Higuain once more tallying for his side, mere seconds into the second half.
May 31 Toronto 3: Columbus 2
Columbus would take the lead after eighteen minutes, Justin Meram beating Joe Bendik with a rising shot to the top right-corner having received a ball from Ethan Finlay to move in to the right-side of the box on the end of a quick break. Jermain Defoe would level from the penalty spot after Tyson Wahl pulled him back in the 21st minute.
Agustin Viana reinstated the visitor’s advantage in the 65th minute, getting on the end of a left-sided Ben Speas corner kick to the back-post, but Defoe added his second in the 81st with a left-footed blast after Gilberto alertly headed forward to his teammate and Doneil Henry found the winner in the 92nd – rising up to meet a Daniel Lovitz free-kick with a strong header, ensuring the Trillium Cup would come to Toronto for the second time in its seven-year existence.
Gregg Berhalter’s side enters the match short-handed, especially up top.
The decision to trade Dominic Oduro to Toronto back-fired quickly, leaving the Crew with just two first-team strikers; not to mention that Alvaro Rey, the profits of the trade, departed from the club for personal reasons shortly thereafter.
Added to that crunch, an injury suffered against New York has seen Jairo Arrieta absent for the last four matches, though his status has been upgraded to questionable.
Further attacking injuries to Hector Jimenez and Bernardo Anor have opened spots for in the midfield, while Josh Williams’ surgery has necessitated a shuffle on the back-line.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Steve Clark in goal; from right to left – Michael Parkhurst, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Tyson Wahl, and Waylon Francis across the back-line; Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp holding with Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain, and Ben Speas across the midfield; rookie Adam Bedell will top the formation.
Should either Anor or Arrieta be available, they are likely candidates to take up the left-side of midfield and striking positions, respectively, while Justin Meram is a capable replacement on either flank.
Wahl was guilty of conceding the penalty kick in Chicago and Berhalter could opt to give Eric Gehrig a run out against Toronto, a team against whom he played a fantastic match a few seasons ago.
Agustin Viana and Chad Barson could possibly take up that right-back slot, allowing Parkhurst to return to a centre-back’s role. Viana and Kevan George are capable defensive midfielders, but there is little reason to disrupt the Trapp-Tchani partnership at the moment.
Striker Aaron Schoenfeld reportedly did very well during his loan spell with the Dayton Dutch Lions, registering twelve goals in eighteen USL PRO matches before reporting back to Columbus mid July. Bedell has been lively, registering his first MLS goal in that loss to New York, but perhaps Berhalter will look to mix things up a touch.
Columbus, with their excellent ball movement, can be very troublesome on the break – Higuain being the primary mover in that respect. His cheeky flick allowed Finlay to pounce on a New York mistake and Bedell took the chance very well:
But it is not just Higuain that can hit a decent ball, Trapp, Tchani, Anor, and Speas, are similarly capable, as is Meram, doing so against New England:
Toronto’s back-line will have to keep a close eye on runners and do a much better job than New England did in tracking.
If the opponent drops too deep to quell the threat of those quick breaks, Columbus can cause pain in space that opens up in front of the defense – both of Bernardo Anor’s goals against Montreal came from such situations:
Note how the centre of the pitch opens up for him, Montreal backing off, Heath Pearce far too late to pressure – it is unlikely that Michael Bradley and Collen Warner would allow that sort of room, but they are forewarned.
Higuain loves a chip if given an inch of room and should Toronto concede any dangerous free-kick looks, he may just drop one of these on them:
As the Chicago announcer proclaimed when Higuain scored seconds into the second half on the weekend, "You give the little devil a moment, he’ll burn you."
On the other end of the pitch, Columbus are a little slow at the back; they can be caught pushing too far up-field and spread too thin when looking to build. Their full-backs in particular like to get involved in the attack, leaving large, unprotected gaps behind.
New York devastatingly exploited those areas; here Thierry Henry and Lloyd Sam find space, sending the Columbus back-line scrambling to cover:
While Eric Alexander capped off the four-goal night with a calm finish after Sam’s speed and Henry’s ball caught the Crew cheating forward:
TFC has the speed in those wide areas to really cause problems for the Crew, watch for Oduro to bite his former club, who should definitely have some celebratory pizza on hand.
Columbus are also very weak in defending set-pieces, Doneil Henry’s winner in the last meeting is just one recent example. Sporting KC’s CJ Sapong was left completely unmarked – one of many KC players lined up to meet a Feilhaber corner kick; while New England’s AJ Soares met a Kelyn Rowe corner kick at the near-post for this bullet header:
Toronto has failed to make the most of set-pieces this season and with a run of crucial matches coming up, they are due. Henry is a constant threat, while Nick Hagglund is owed one after so many close calls. Gilberto too is a threat on corner kicks; that is if TFC can provide some decent service that both beats the first man and is not over-hit.
Expect this match to be a physical encounter, Columbus can get a little petulant when things do not go their way – Anor was shown a red for kicking a ball at a prone Chris Duvall in New York – and they will not want to drop a third match to Toronto.
Anor’s red was overturned on appeal; the referee in question was Ted Unkel, who is now well familiar to TFC fans.
This is the third and final meeting of the regular season; the Trillium Cup has already been sewn up with TFC winning the first two matches.
The two clubs have met 21 times in MLS play with Columbus winning ten, Toronto four, and drawing the other seven. In Columbus, the Crew have won seven of the eleven all-time meetings, with TFC winning two and drawing twice.
Saturday’s encounter will also be the Kirk Urso Memorial match, honouring their fallen comrade.