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Scouting Toronto FC’s next opponent, the Columbus Crew

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Gregg Berhalter’s team might be the hottest in MLS.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York City at Columbus Crew Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew are all that stand between Toronto FC and a second consecutive MLS Cup final.

The Crew lost twice to the Reds during the regular season, and finished 15 points behind the Supporters’ Shield champions. If this were baseball, that would be five games behind after only 34 matches. Extrapolated for a full baseball season, that number would balloon to 24 games back.

But, since this isn’t baseball, that gap is meaningless.

Many are pointing to TFC’s lopsided 5-0 drubbing of Columbus earlier this year as proof of what can be accomplished against the Crew sans Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. But, any hope that history will repeat itself is pure folly at this point in the campaign. Both of Toronto’s victories against Columbus came during the first half of the year and are distant memories.

The Eastern Conference final is not a case of David vs. Goliath. No one is taking Columbus lightly, nor should they.

During the second half of the season, the Crew were a real force. They only lost three times over their final 17 matches, recording 33 points in the process.

(For comparison, during that same period, Toronto also lost three times, and earned 34 points.)

Columbus’ success, even during the playoffs, has been predicated on their ability to oscillate between a tight 4-2-3-1 formation and a traditional 4-4-2. In both instances, coach Gregg Berhalter has his team clogging up the centre of the pitch, waiting to strike when opportunities arise. Late-season results on the road - against an emotionally charged Orlando City squad (Kaka’s last game), in New York against NYCFC on Decision Day and at Atlanta United’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the opening round of the playoffs - are proof positive that this team has fully bought into Berhalter’s system.

MLS: Eastern Conference Knockout Round-Columbus Crew at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

For the most part, Toronto has not enjoyed playing against a 4-2-3-1. This was especially true during the early part of the year. However, once the Reds rediscovered their passing boots, they were able to overwhelm the opposition and navigate through the melee with one-touch accuracy. This, along with frequent cross-field aerial balls, stretched defenders and allowed TFC to breach their opponents’ lines. Toronto will probably have to do the same against Columbus. But this may prove challenging for the Reds – a team that is not on form, playing in brutally cold weather, after several weeks of inactivity.

The Crew, on the other hand, are not looking to score many goals. So far, in these playoffs, they have tallied four in three games – all against NYCFC in the first leg of their series, with three of them coming after the Pigeons were reduced to 10 men.

Even during the regular season, Columbus didn’t win by outgunning their opponents. Typically, they grinded their way to the finish line. They were patient and opportunistic.

That’s not to say that they aren’t talented. The Crew have two consistent goal scoring threats in Ola Kamara and Justin Meram (18 and 13 goals respectively). Off the bench, they can call on both Kekuta Manneh and Adam Jahn to threaten TFC’s back line.

Then there is Federico Higuain, a player who has traditionally performed very well against Toronto. The brother of Gonzalo has recorded 8 goals and 6 assists in 15 career matches against the Reds.

This says nothing of Columbus’ recent DP signing. In August, the Crew added Pedro Santos to their midfield. Prior to joining MLS, Santos played for Braga in Portugal’s Primeira Liga. While he has yet to score in 12 games (including the playoffs), he does more than enough to keep his opponents off balance. In his dozen appearances, he has already recorded 21 shots and drawn 30 fouls. Even more telling is the fact that Columbus has only lost once with him in the line-up (their last playoff game against NYCFC).

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York City at Columbus Crew Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Charging down the Crew’s right side, he will pose a challenge for Justin Morrow and Chris Mavinga.

At the other end of the pitch is Zack Steffen. Steffen is one of the better high-pressure keepers in the league. His strength lies in making that save; the one that keeps his team in the game. He certainly proved that against Atlanta. His regular-season stats were also solid: he played every minute of every game (one of only two MLS goalies to do so); he finished 2017 with a 65.3 save percentage; he posted a 1.44 goals-against average; he earned nine clean sheets; and he stopped three of seven penalties.

To summarize, the Columbus Crew riddle reads as follows: they are a talented team that grind out results based on a tight, well-coached system, with an athletic goalie who excels at the big save.

The blueprint for solving this riddle was laid bare by NYCFC during the second leg of their Eastern Conference semi-final. Granted, the Crew were probably already looking past New York City, having won the first leg by three goals. But, call it what you will – overconfidence, sitting back, etc. – that alone does not account for the game’s final result.

At times, NYCFC mauled them.

In the end, Columbus was very lucky to have made it through the series. Certainly, a fair chunk of credit has to be thrown New York’s way.

Almost exclusively, NYCFC used the flanks to advance the ball up the field, while bringing players forward through the middle in order to collapse Columbus’ central defence. They then created havoc by doing one of three things: playing a low cross into the box; hitting a trailing player in open space (due to the collapsed defence); or playing an aerial ball to the far post. They even used this strategy on set pieces.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Columbus Crew at New York City FC Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

On defence, New York put numbers around Kamara and Meram and, for the most part, they held their defensive line higher than Columbus’. When the Crew played a high press, NYCFC used quick, one-touch passes to get the ball to the sides and then up the field again.

It all sounds very simple. Of course, it’s anything but. The crazy field dimensions of Yankee Stadium probably threw the visitors off a wee bit as well. However, if using the sidelines worked in the limited confines of a baseball diamond, then perhaps the added space of a regulation pitch will work well for a team with Justin Morrow and Nicolas Hasler bookending a five-man midfield.

Whatever tactics Greg Vanney employs during this series, he must base his strategy on the current version of the Crew, not the team that he saw in April and May. Other than the warm and fuzzy feelings stirred by that 5-0 victory, all talk of that game must end now.

With the off-field drama surrounding their club, the fans in Ohio are viewing 2017’s outfit as a ‘team of destiny’. Given the long lay-off between games, it will be the best prepared squad that makes it to the MLS Cup final, not necessarily the hottest or the most talented. Destiny favours the prepared.

For this reason, the next few days will be very important. Recent games featuring the Crew will need to be watched and re-watched several times over. Columbus’ strengths and weaknesses will need to be analyzed and assessed. Practices and review sessions will need to be crisp and targeted.

For, as Yogi Berra once said, “(Soccer) is 90% mental. The other half is physical.”