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What's the difference between Toronto FC and Columbus Crew?

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In the MLS standings, Toronto FC and the Columbus Crew were similar in a number of ways. However, with the Columbus Crew on the verge of the MLS Cup final, what are the main differences between Toronto FC and their rival?

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Four, the number of points that put the Columbus Crew ahead of Toronto FC after the final week of the MLS season. With 58 goals scored and 53 goals conceded, Columbus had a record that was very similar to Toronto's. However, only one team is set to book their ticket to the MLS Cup Final. When first glancing at the numbers it would seem reasonable to assume that Toronto and Columbus had very similar seasons and therefore teams. Why is it that Columbus is now considered the favourite the win the MLS Cup? Could they have just gotten hot at the right time? Or is this a just a case where the table doesn't tell the full story?

Statistically

Columbus Crew

Goals Conceded (Game) Goals Scored # OF GAMES Average Scoreline
0 13 6 0-2.2
1 20 10 1-2
2 20 13 2-1.54
3 3 4 3-.75
5 2 1 5-2

Toronto FC

Goals Conceded (Game) Goals Scored # of Games Average Scorline
0 9 5 0-1.8
1 28 11 1-2.55
2 7 9 2-0.78
3 10 7 3-1.43
4 4 2 4-2

One of the reasons why Toronto’s season was often compared to Columbus’s was because both teams had high scoring offenses and terrible defensive records. Columbus and Toronto were both in the top 3 in team scoring, each with 58 goals respectively, and both on the wrong end of defensive records, as Toronto was tied for the league lead with 58 goals conceded and Columbus with 53. When analyzing the team’s score lines more closely, the numbers reveal key points as to why the team’s records appeared to be similar but weren’t a proper representation of the team’s quality.

Each team had 16 games in which they conceded 1 or 0 goals. In those games Toronto was just as likely to earn points, with an average of 2.175 goals scored, as Columbus, with a lesser average of 2.1. The difference between the teams is found in the other 18 games in which the teams conceded anywhere from 2-5 goals. While both teams had a very similar goals scored average in these matches too, Columbus with a 1.43 and Toronto with 1.40, it is stunning the situations in which these goals were scored. For Columbus, the majority (20) of their 2+ goals conceded games, were games in which they conceded 2 goals. Toronto had less than half that number as they only conceded 2 goals in 7 games. All of this shows that Toronto was prone to more matches in which they were blown out, with 14 games that they were scored on 3+ times.

While Toronto and Columbus may have had a similar number of goals scored and goals, deeper analysis of this shows how different the two teams were statistically. The Columbus offence was more likely to bail out their defence in matches where they conceded 2 or less goals. While Toronto had an offence capable of doing the same, the defense was prone to a large number of games in which they conceded 3+ goals. These numbers just go to support what we already know, Toronto had a terrible backline which needs to be fixed. Columbus on the other hand, had a somewhat competent defence that could avoid blowouts and play solidly over periods of time.

The Players

There are two places on the field in which the Crew completely dominates Toronto. The first being the wingers in midfield. Toronto doesn't have the quality of wingers like Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay. Often times throughout the season, Toronto was forced to play central midfielders out wide due to a lack of depth of wide players. Toronto's only quality player out on the wing, Jonathan Osorio, is not a natural wide player and tends to play better when he's on the ball in the centre of midfield. If Toronto wants to one day get to the same level of play as Columbus, improvement on the wings is a must in order to utilize more of the pitch.

Then there's the spine of the team, from the goalkeeper through the centre backs and all the way up to the centre of midfield. By the end of the season, Toronto still hadn't found a combination that worked. With no standout centre back pairings, a backup goalkeeper, and a variety of midfield partners trying to play with Michael Bradley, it just didn't work for Toronto. Columbus, on the other hand, had a quality keeper in Steve Clark, a solid centre back pairing in Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl, and a midfield trio with Wil Trapp, Tony Tchani and Federico Higuain who could actually work together.

If Toronto wants to have a central core similar in quality to Columbus it's going to take a lot of work. Toronto will need to bring in a starting keeper and at least one quality centre back. The midfield is where things get tricky as Toronto needs to decide what to do with Michael Bradley. The captain, played in the number 10 role throughout the season, was a liability in the midfield and required two other central midfielders to play behind him in order to compensate for when Bradley went forward. The argument can be made that Bradley isn't a true #10 and is better played in a the #6 role, but if Toronto chooses to go ahead with this, they'll need to bring in proper support for Bradley. In Columbus, Higuain has Trapp and Tchani behind him to cover. Toronto needs to find two similar quality players to play behind Bradley if they want to have a midfield similar in quality to Columbus's.

So while the table may say Toronto and Columbus are similar teams, by further inspection they are obviously not. Columbus are better at nearly every position on the field and deserve to be going to the MLS Cup Final. Toronto on the other hand has a lot of work to do if they want to be at the same quality as Columbus. With upgrades needed to be made at all positions, except for forward and left back, the Toronto front office will need a big offseason if they hope to compete with the Columbus Crew next season.