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Toronto FC show the Columbus Crew plenty of respect in first-leg stalemate

TFC made a clean sheet their priority.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew have earned plenty of respect over the past couple of months - well, one man aside - and Toronto FC paid them more of it on Tuesday night.

We’ve seen Greg Vanney spring a few tactical surprises on the road this season, and it’s usually done with a clean sheet in mind above all else.

That was certainly the case again in Ohio despite the removal of a centre-back for an extra midfielder. Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow tucked in as orthodox full-backs, rarely threatening the Crew penalty area, and enjoyed an uncommon level of protection from wide midfielders Nicolas Hasler and Marky Delgado.

The change in shape was, of course, partially driven by the absence of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Perhaps the single biggest reason Toronto play a 3-5-2, after all, is to accommodate their two star strikers while ensuring they are not overmatched in midfield.

When those two players are unavailable, there’s no real point in feeling wedded to that formation.

There was also a sense, though, that Vanney had used the international break to map out a game plan that prioritized discipline and defensive security.

When Arsenal switched to a three-man defence last season, Arsene Wenger admitted that the initial reason for the change was simply to give his players something different to think about during a difficult spell of form.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Vanney did not need to make the change because of a bad run but the same principle applied, in a way: it gave every player a job to focus on, and that some of those jobs were unfamiliar only increased the need for them to be engaged at all times, on both sides of the ball.

It also sprung a surprise on Columbus - TFC even showed off a 3-5-2 in the way they lined up before kick-off - which allowed the visitors to see through the first 20 minutes or so mostly unperturbed.

Things got more frantic late on, as is inevitable for a spell in these away legs, but the Crew were at no point pulling Toronto apart.

“Obviously in the second half you know that they’re going to want to try to give it a good push,” Michael Bradley said.

“They did that, and while they controlled things a little bit more we didn’t give away much in terms of big chances.”

The sacrifice TFC made was their own attacking threat, with Tosaint Ricketts having a couple of brief looks at goal in the first half but seeing very little of Zack Steffen in the second.

Victor Vazquez, too, was isolated and effectively squeezed between the lines by the Columbus back four and holding midfielders. His best moments occurred when he dropped deep in search of the ball.

Vanney was probably hoping for a counter-attack or two more than he got as the game became stretched in the second half, but his plan was a tip of the cap to a team that had won eight of its past nine home games coming into this match.

The fundamental premise of the coach’s approach to this first leg seemed to be that he did not want to get into a shootout against a team like the Crew without his two best finishers.

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

Where Giovinco and Altidore’s absence was really felt was late in the game, when Toronto were coming under pressure and didn’t have a whole lot to turn to from the bench.

Holding up the ball and relieving pressure has never been Ricketts’ strength but Vanney was hardly likely to throw Ben Spencer, of all 179 MLS minutes, into the fray.

For that reason, there will be questions asked again as to why Spencer was even on the bench ahead of Jordan Hamilton, but it is not much easier to imagine the Canadian ploughing a lone furrow up front in a game like this. The thinking may have been that Spencer’s 6’ 5” frame could be thrown into the box alongside Ricketts if TFC found themselves in the worst-case scenario of needing to chase a goal.

A different Canadian - Raheem Edwards - seemed the natural substitute but it was not obvious how he would get on without sacrificing some solidity in the centre of the pitch. In the end, it was for a cramping Morrow with little time on the clock.

Toronto are not as well off as they were after the away leg against the New York Red Bulls, but their mentality going into the second game will be much the same: win by any means and you’re through.

“We’ve played well at home all season,” Jonathan Osorio said. “We’re very confident that, against any team, we can get a win.”

Which is exactly what they were saying three weeks ago before a game no one expected.

There’s reason to believe this time will be different: Columbus are not the Red Bulls, and if they’re going to beat TFC it will be by producing the kind of outstanding performance they did in Atlanta in the knockout round rather than setting a bomb off.

But once again, it is all lined up for a statement night from the MLS Cup favourites on their own turf. They are overdue a performance in front of their own fans befitting that status.