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Preview: Pozuelo to return as Toronto FC look for second win this month over Columbus Crew

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Another Trillium Cup on the cards?

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Just over two weeks since their 2-0 over Columbus Crew at the Exploria Stadium, Toronto FC is back in action against the reigning MLS Cup champions, a game which could see the Reds clinch the Trillium Cup for a fifth time in six years.

More importantly, TFC will look to put their disappointing defeat to Orlando City SC behind them and record a fourth straight win against the Crew on Saturday. Kick off is set for 3:00 p.m EST at the Columbus Crew Stadium.

Goals on either side of halftime from Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore steered the Reds to their first MLS win of the season. Since then, Toronto has picked up just one point from two games following the 1-1 draw with NYCFC and last weekend’s loss to Orlando.

As for Columbus, Toronto handed them their first league defeat of the year before going on to lose a second straight game a few days later, this time to the New England Revolution. The Crew bounced back last week and recorded a dramatic 2-1 victory over NYCFC thanks to Lucas Zelarayán’s 95th minute winner.

That win moved Columbus back up to 8th, while TFC still sit third from bottom with five points from six games. A win for Toronto on Saturday would see the Reds not only move level on points with the Crew, but also take home the Trillium Cup for the third straight season.

A draw would also be enough for TFC to take home the 14th edition of this rivalry cup, but Chris Armas’ men will surely have eyes on a much needed victory against the only MLS side that TFC have triumphed over so far this campaign.

On the injury report, Yeferson Soteldo was ruled out on Friday afternoon after he picked up a Grade 2 muscle injury to his left thigh. The Venezuelan FA were the first to break the news, which all but confirms that Soteldo will more than likely miss his country’s World Cup Qualifiers against Bolivia and Uruguay, and the 2021 Copa America.

In addition, Armas confirmed in his press conference that Omar Gonzalez and Jonathan Osorio are questionable for Saturday’s match after they both sustained injuries during the defeat to Orlando. Dom Dwyer, who was absent against his former side last weekend, will once again not be available for selection due to muscle tightness.

Ifunanyachi Achara, Julian Dunn and Erickson Gallardo, who each have yet to play in MLS this year, remain sidelined.

Altidore’s status for the game is also up in the air after reports came in that TFC’s second all-time top scorer would not be training with the first team following a disagreement with Armas.

Some good news from TFC’s camp though is that Alejandro Pozuelo could make his long-awaited season debut against Columbus. The reigning MLS MVP has been out since pre-season with a thigh injury, but has now resumed full training with the first team. He is currently listed as questionable on the injury report.

Pozuelo’s return either on Saturday or after the international break will hopefully bolster Toronto on the scoring front, as Osorio is the only player to have scored more than once after TFC’s 10 games in all competitions this year.

Toronto has used various players in the No. 10 role this season, including Osorio, Noble Okello and Nick DeLeon, so the welcome return of Pozuelo will surely add a much needed sense of balance to the side with Chris Armas having yet to field what many consider TFC’s best XI.

A potential return to the side for Pozuelo could see TFC extend their winning streak against the Crew to four. Toronto is unbeaten in 12 of their last 14 clashes with Columbus, with the Reds having recorded seven wins, five draws and two defeats since May 2016.

Saturday’s game will be the 40th meeting (38 in the MLS regular season) in history between Toronto and Columbus, making the Crew just the second team to play TFC at least 40 times. Altidore scored his eighth career goal and seventh for TFC against the Crew a few weeks ago, with the American having only scored more goals against Montreal over the course of his career.

In the all time scoring history of this matchup, Altidore’s seven goals for Toronto is second to the 10 strikes that Federico Higuain bagged during his seven and a half year spell in Columbus.

Both sides are at risk of moving further behind the pack of teams above them, so a feisty affair may well be on the cards.

Ahead of the international break, Armas’ men should have nothing but victory on their minds, and after taking care of the Crew not long ago, let’s hope our Reds can do it again on the road.

Question Exchange with Massive Report’s Pat Murphy:

1. Who has been the Crew’s most impressive player so far this season?

It has to be Lucas Zelarayan. So far this year, he is the team’s offense as the other attacking players attempt to get going. In every game the Crew has scored this year, Champions League and in MLS play, he has either had a goal or an assist, sometimes both. The Black & Gold have just five goals so far in the 2021 MLS season. Three of those have come from Zelarayan free kicks and the other two were own goals by D.C. United.

Teams are certainly targeting Zelarayan more this year than they were last season, with some teams even man-marking him all over the field with one, sometimes two defenders. He’s still finding ways to get on the ball and create space for himself, which is impressive. Columbus needs more from other players, especially in front of goal, but Zelarayan has, without a doubt, been the most impressive so far this year.

2. Are there any young talents that fans should have their eyes on for this game as well as for the remainder of the campaign?

This question would be a lot easier to answer if Aidan Morris, who became the youngest player to ever start in the MLS Cup Final last year, didn’t tear his ACL in the first game of the season. He was really coming on. Alexandru Matan is certainly a player to watch, likely coming off the bench. The 21-year-old winger came to the Crew in the offseason and has demonstrated some flashes on the ball and in trying to create. It hasn’t all come together yet for him but he’s an exciting, young prospect.

I’d also say Isaiah Parente. He signed a Homegrown contract this offseason and impressed in the preseason, so much so that the team felt comfortable sending Sebastian Berhalter on loan to Austin FC. The Wake Forest product can play a number of positions in the midfield and will likely be called upon more than expected as a rookie after Morris’ injury.

3. How important was Zelarayán’s late winner over NYCFC with regards to the team’s morale following the two straight defeats against TFC and New England?

I don’t think it impacted the morale of the team too much, although it’s always nice to get a win. This is a confident group that understood the start of the season was going to be tough with match congestion. That was compounded by a number of early-season injuries that have derailed some of the team’s plans.

What those two free kicks did do was finally get the team a victory on the road. It had been since September of 2019 since the Crew won on the road — yes, the Black & Gold won MLS Cup without winning a true road match — and now people like me will stop asking the players and coaches about that fact. It was also an important win against a good New York City FC team, which is always big in what will once again be a tight Eastern Conference.

4. With a lot of international soccer coming up this summer, will any Crew players be heading off to represent their national teams?

There will likely be several that get called in at some point this summer. Goalkeeper Eloy Room and winger Luis Diaz both already received call-ups to Curaçao and Costa Rica, respectively. They will leave after this game. Derrick Etienne is likely to join the Haitian National Team and Kevin Molino, if healthy, should be a call-up for Trinidad and Tobago. Gyasi Zardes could also be in the running for the Gold Cup roster this summer for the U.S. depending on his form.