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Columbus Crew vs. Toronto FC: What to watch for

Three key factors for TFC ahead of the first leg.

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Despite heading to Ohio without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC seem fairly confident ahead of this conference final tilt with the Columbus Crew. The Reds still have a strong lineup at their disposal, and they’ve done pretty well against their Trillium Cup rivals this season.

That said, the Crew might be the hottest team in MLS at the moment, and as such they’re nothing to trifle with at this stage. Although the Reds beat them 5-0 with a similar lineup to what they’ll field on Tuesday, the Columbus team they saw then was almost nothing like the one they’re up against now.

Here’s what TFC will need if they’re to come away with a result at Mapfre Stadium this week.

#SaveTheCrew

Alex Bono has been Toronto’s playoff MVP through two games against the New York Red Bulls. He made huge stops in both games, crushing Bradley Wright-Phillips’ hopes and dreams by denying him with a beautiful kick save in leg two.

TFC’s defence is one of the best in the league, but they’re still prone to the odd error or missed assignment. Bono came up big every time that happened against the Red Bulls (one of their two goals was a penalty, and the other a weird deflection that the keeper stood no chance on).

Despite being just 23, Bono is one of the calmest keepers in MLS. My faith in him has only grown this season, and he seems to get even better in tense situations. His presence at the back makes the defence play a little more confidently, making TFC a very tough nut to crack, home or away.

Keep your cool

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

We all know that TFC lost their heads a little bit at BMO Field two weeks ago. Whether or not you agree with the way referee Chris Penso handled that game, Toronto absolutely had moments they cannot be proud of (Victor Vazquez, frankly, is lucky to have gotten away without a card after chest-bumping the official).

Robert Sibiga will be in charge of this first leg. Toronto have never had a problem with him; he’s never sent off a TFC player, but he’s given one yellow card each to Michael Bradley, Altidore, Giovinco, Chris Mavinga, and Eriq Zavaleta in six games refereed.

So, there’s no real history with this particular ref (NB: the VAR for this game is Dave Gantar, who was in charge of the Canadian Championship final at BMO Field this year). TFC cannot afford to establish any tonight.

Bradley is currently sitting on a yellow card, which Penso gave him at half-time last time out. The Reds really don’t want to lose him. Thankfully, if he gets through this game without a booking, he’ll be alright - yellow-card accumulation is wiped before the MLS Cup final, so he could get one in the second leg and still play in the final if TFC were to get there.

The Reds have shown that they’re definitely prone to a little petulance and irresponsibility. The Crew likely won’t try and lure them into that as much as the Red Bulls did, but it’s still vital that they keep their heads on straight.

No man is an island

The thing that TFC might be most worried about is struggling to get the ball through to Tosaint Ricketts. When playing with a lone striker, as they probably will, teams can be prone to allowing the man forward to be swarmed and isolated by the defence.

It’s happened to TFC in the past this season; the loss away to New England comes to mind. The onus is on Vazquez here to find Ricketts up top and not leave him completely alone up there. Thankfully, Vazquez is an extremely talented player with top-notch passing ability, so he should be able to thread it through on several occasions.

Still, this will probably be part of Columbus’s game plan. They’ll know that TFC might be hard-pressed for goals without their two main strikers, so they’ll focus on keeping Ricketts out of the equation. As long as he doesn’t track too far ahead without support, though, he should be alright. He has the pace to get into space without pulling himself too far away from his teammates.