Having put a three-match winless skid in the rearview with a win over Philadelphia last weekend, Toronto FC hits the road for a pair of difficult Eastern Conference fixtures.
The win was also a milestone of sorts, marking the official start of the second half of the season for TFC and it is safe to say, it has gone well. Toronto currently sits in fourth place in the East with games in hand – their points-per-game is third best and markedly ahead of all the teams behind them – and their remaining schedule sees them play ten of their remaining sixteen matches at home.
Home form will likely determine whether this is the year that they finally reach the playoffs, but the next two rounds provide a test of the team's mettle; performing on the road will be vital to a successful post-season run. Playing well at home is great, but it is on the road that can make the difference; even a hard-fought scoreless draw can be the right result, depending on the circumstance.
With that in mind, away challenges in Columbus and New England over the next two weeks will be the last time Toronto has an extended trial away from the friendly confines of home – the four remaining road trips are all one-off affairs. As good a time as any to get that away badge locked up.
New England appear to have awoken from their midseason slumber, if only slightly, and they will be a challenge, but Columbus, this weekend's focus, will be a tricky one.
Much of what was discussed before the two met at the start of the season – Parts One and Two – is still valid, but an updated examination of this weekend's opponent, Columbus Crew, is in order.
Columbus enters Saturday's match as one of the three teams ahead of Toronto in the East, sitting in second place on 30 points from 21 matches and on a two-game winning streak after a pair of wins over the struggling Chicago Fire last week.
Their home form in particular will be relevant – the win in Chicago was their first away from home. Of eleven matches played at MAPFRE Stadium the Crew have won seven, draw two, and lost two, collecting 23 points in the process.
Much has happened since the meeting between the two clubs in the second round of MLS action.
Their win over Toronto that day was their first of the season and they would have to endure a three-game winless streak before they would take another – falling at home to New York (the Red Bulls), before drawing in Vancouver and New England.
Wins over Orlando City and Philadelphia at home would follow, before falling on the road with a loss to DC United to start May off on a poor footing.
They would beat Seattle back in Columbus the next week – their only win of the month – falling in San Jose, drawing at home against Chicago and again away to Orlando to close the month.
June did not begin any better, losing three-straight – in Philadelphia, against Montreal, and drawing at home against Los Angeles – before a win over Richmond in the US Open Cup flowed into a win over New England; a draw in Salt Lake followed. The month would close with another loss, falling out of the Open Cup away to Orlando City.
July, however, was an entirely different experience, winning three of their four matches since the calendar page turned.
They would take revenge against the Red Bulls, winning 2-1 at home on July 4 – Anatole Abang opened the scoring after eight minutes, but a pair of strikes from Ethan Finlay in either half would overturn that early tally.
The following week they would stumble in Montreal, falling 3-0 to a superb start from the Impact. Dominic Oduro scored in the fifth minute and Marco Donadel hit a laser beam into the top corner in the eight; Oduro would complete his brace in the 80th minute, rounding out the result.
Last week a pair of wins over Chicago vaulted Columbus from fifth to second in the conference, winning 0-1 on Wednesday in the away leg – Kei Kamra scoring the game's only goal in the 41st minute with a towering header – before taking a 3-1 victory back home on the weekend.
A penalty kick just second after kickoff allowed Federico Higuain to give Columbus an early lead, but David Accam pulled one back in the ninth minute. Another Kamara header would prove the game winner and Finlay padded the lead late, after Jason Johnson was controversially sent off for a dive – it was his second yellow card.
At home, Columbus have won their last three and are unbeaten in four.
March 14 Columbus 2: Toronto 0
Following a hard-fought first half, TFC were reduced to ten-men in first-half stoppage-time when Justin Morrow was deemed to have brought down Finlay as he tore towards goal, a debatable call.
Justin Meram would find the break-through in the 57th minute, rising up to meet a Finlay cross from the right, guiding his header on to the right-side of goal. And four minutes later Kamara would make in two, getting on the end of a Waylon Francis cross from the left, completely unmarked just steps from the goal. He would celebrate with a hard-hat and a teamster pose.
Toronto were perhaps lucky to not concede more, crumbling under the Columbus attack and disgruntled from the controversial game-turning call.
The win gave Columbus an early advantage in claiming the Trillium Cup, Toronto having swept the series last season by an 8-4 combined score.
Expect Toronto to be eager to make amends for that early loss.
Heading into Saturday's match, Gregg Berhalter has his entire squad at his disposal. That is not to say there are not a few question marks over their starting eleven.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Steve Clark in goal; from right to left – Hector Jimenez, Michael Parkhurst, Emanuel Pogatetz, Waylon Francis along the back; Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani sitting deep, with Ethan Finlay, Federico Higuain, and Justin Meram across the midfield; Kei Kamara will top the formation.
The biggest question mark over that projection is whether Pogatetz will line up in the middle alongside Parkhurst. He was left out of both matches against Chicago last week, Tyson Wahl preferred, and either could get the start come Saturday.
There has been some tension between the experience Swiss international and Berhalter in the past.
Right-back too has seen a lot of competition in recent weeks. Jimenez is a re-tasked midfielder who has adapted well, while Chad Barson and Chris Klute are defenders by training. Klute is more a left-sided player, but has seen time on the right with Francis locking down the other side.
Trapp is recently back from a long concussion-related absence and has looked good; Mohammed Saeid did exceptionally well in his absence, so if Trapp, still getting up to fitness needs a rest, Saeid is ready to step in. Recent acquisition Congolese midfielder Cedrick Mabwati is yet to feature in league play, but has been an option from the bench.
The front four is pretty much a lock, but Columbus has plenty of depth. Kristinn Steindorsson has shown quality when on the pitch on either flank or in the middle, Ben Speas too is an option in those spots, while back-up strikers Adam Bedell and Aaron Schoenfeld have been limited to minutes from the bench. Bedell was sent on loan to Richamond, so will not be available.
A few recent addenda to the strengths and weakness:
Columbus leans heavily on Kamara for their goal-scoring – he accounts for fourteen of their 31 goals
Whether in open-play or from set-pieces, Kamara is near-unstoppable. He can beat the opponent in a number of ways, but it is in the air that he is his most dominant.
His leaping ability is amongst the best in the league – even when Chicago's Sean Johnson, who is allowed to use his hands goes up with Kamara, he is apt to get beat:
That cross was from Francis on the left, whereas the next one was from Finlay on the right – Columbus has multiple weapons that can provide the service:
The second of those two adds a few other dimensions, aside from pure leaping and crossing, that Toronto will have to contend.
The first is the lightning-quick counter that Columbus uses to steal ground against Chicago. Few teams are that efficient at moving from one end of the pitch to the other and Toronto needs to be wary of pressing too high – something that cost them in the first meeting – against a side that came eat up distance that quickly in attack.
The other is that which dooms Lovel Palmer at the back-stick against Kamara. He is caught flat-footed whereas Kamara is able to time his movement to arrive on the run, getting the jump on the defender to win the header. It is always tempting to defend space rather than players – one can get in position ahead of time and remove the risk of not keeping up – but that comes with the fact that a standing jump is no match for a running one.
Toronto would be well served to match Kamara stride for stride rather than beat him for position.
Further complicating matters is that Kamara is not the only big target. Tchani, Pogatetz, Parkhurst, Meram, and Wahl are also candidates to get on the end of that service.
Another method that TFC will have to watch carefully is the weaving movement of the attack. Higuain, who starts in the middle will drift into either channel (and is always up for a chip, so beware), while both of the wide attackers – Meram and Finlay – tend to operate from the outside in.
That diagonal, crisscross movement can be a nightmare to track, and is further complicated by the incessant overlapping of the full-backs, adding another moving piece to the ballet.
Just watch all the movement in the build-up that leads to Finlay's goal against Chicago:
Higuain checks into the midfield, Steindorsson moves across to the near-post from the left and Finlay crosses over to that side, switching up midstream with his opposite wide-midfielder for the back-side run. How does a back-line swap assignments under pressure when that is what is coming towards.
The full-backs advancing just spreads the back-line even thinner – Toronto will need to get some serious defensive work out of their midfield in order to cover every avenue.
All of that darting movement into the area opens up another issue: the late arriving run to the top of the area. Having back off the twisted up defenders, that space is left wide open for the likes of Tchani to pounce:
On last alert: Columbus likes to try things, a little bit of trickery, such as this set-play from kickoff that catches out Chicago and earns a penalty kick after just ten seconds:
TFC, you've been warned!
For all those concerns in attack, there are ways to catch Columbus at the back.
The initial part of their build out of the back involves sending the full-backs high up the pitch and spreading the centre-backs wide to give the keeper options up either side. One or both of the deep central-midfielders will drop deep to occupy that central hole, but if they are caught early enough in possession that openness can prove a liability.
Montreal was able to take advantage of that set-up by forcing a turnover at the midway line – note how desperate Columbus were to intervene high, or at least buy themselves time to reassemble. They were never quite able to regain shape, thanks to Ignacio Piatti driving up the middle, allowing Dominic Oduro to race onto his through-ball, round the keeper, and tuck into an open net:
Toronto should look to pressure the ball-carrier on the Columbus half of the pitch, with numbers caught forward, a quick break can find those gaps in the defenses.
That goal showed another of the frailties of the Crew lineup, namely, a lack of pace at the back.
Neither Pogatetz, nor Parkhurst, nor the central midfielders are particularly quick, so if they are caught in a foot-race, they can be beat.
That lack of pace forces Columbus into early interventions, Pogatetz jumps in on Piatti in the Oduro clip above, and did the same against New York, allowing Bradley Wright-Phillips to lay a ball behind the back line for Abang to chase, winning out to beat Clark:
Toronto has plenty of pace in their attack and the skill to avoid those early attempts to stifle, so watch for Sebastian Giovinco to either beat them himself, get put in behind by a well-timed ball, or play the pass himself for the likes of Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado, or Jozy Altidore to chase.
Contained in those plays is an element of disorganization amongst the defensive complement.
Columbus were horribly dismantled by Salt Lake's fanciful training ground routine, but it was the second goal they conceded that night that displayed the lack of communication and understanding that is required by a back-line.
A long ball out of the back from Abdoulie Mansally falls into the space between the defender and the keeper. Pogatetz motions for Clark to come out and deal with it, but the keeper assumes the centre-back will, allowing Sebastian Jaime to race, getting the decisive touch:
There will be chances provided for players to break free of the less-than-tight marking of Columbus, Toronto will need to take those and literally run with them.
The two clubs have met 23 times in MLS play with Columbus winning eleven, Toronto five, and drawing the remaining seven matches.
Thirteen of those matches have been played in Columbus, where the Crew have won eight, Toronto three, and two have ended level. TFC has however won two of their last three visits to Ohio.
They will meet one final time this season at BMO Field on October 17.