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Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew: What to watch for

They need a goal.

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

It’s been a long week. The layoff before last Tuesday’s game in Columbus was tougher, but waiting for the second leg of the Eastern Conference final has been brutal. That’s probably due to how much uncertainty surrounds this game for Toronto FC fans.

The second-highest scoring team in MLS history (74) hasn’t found the net in over 180 minutes. Even though they were missing both strikers last game, and frankly didn’t seem particularly interested in scoring at times, that’s cause for concern.

On Wednesday against the Columbus Crew, TFC cannot get away with going goalless. Unless they’re game to play for 0–0 and take their chances on penalties (they shouldn’t be), they have to win.

Here are a few key challenges for the Reds that they’ll need to keep in mind if MLS Cup is to be at BMO Field on December 9.

1. Win the midfield battle

Toronto are, on paper, a better team than Columbus at almost every position. The Crew’s forwards aren’t as good as Sebastian Giovinco, and Josh Williams has nothing on Chris Mavinga. Where this game is closest, I think, is in midfield.

The way I see things shaking out, a lot of the game on Wednesday will be contested in the middle of the pitch - we might get the Michael Bradley versus Wil Trapp chess match MLS has told us to watch for.

That particular battle wasn’t much of a factor last Tuesday. Bradley made 90 passes at an 88.9% accuracy rate, and Trapp completed 59 for 81.4%. The Toronto captain’s performance in that game was masterful, even if the Reds were fairly toothless in attack.

I expect TFC to go back to the 3-5-2 with Giovinco and Jozy Altidore back. That doesn’t change much for Bradley, really; he’ll still play in his lonely pocket at the back of midfield, occasionally drifting into the back three when necessary (maybe less than he did on Tuesday, though).

As for Columbus, the midfield situation is a little more complicated. Artur’s yellow card means he’ll miss out on Wednesday, leaving a sizeable hole in the lineup. He was probably a little better than Trapp in the first leg, making six tackles as well as two interceptions.

Toronto will definitely need Bradley (and, further upfield, Victor Vazquez) to overpower Trapp if they’re to break through and score. Watch for the skipper to get plenty of touches and look to leave his counterpart behind him before sending it to the wings.

2. Go for the jugular

With so much doubt surrounding the anointed Best Team in MLS History™ right now, nothing would take the load off their shoulders better than an early goal. If Altidore and Giovinco come out flying and put TFC up 1–0 in the first 15 minutes, all our greatest fears will be allayed.

There’s no saying they won’t do that. Toronto have scored in the first quarter-hour eight times this season, and and they managed to get on the board early at Red Bull Arena a month ago.

MLS: Montreal Impact at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The longer TFC go without scoring on Wednesday, the more anxious the crowd will get. In the dying moments of the second leg against NYRB, the collective breath-holding of 30,000 people was unmistakable.

Even if the Crew score to tie it at 1–1 (meaning the Reds need to score again), I think TFC would be a lot more confident if they’d scored earlier that night. Erase any kind of doubt about this team’s offensive ability, and they can come out like they did against Minnesota United earlier this year — when their win looked inevitable despite all the times Minnesota tied it up.

3. Substitute effectively

For a team that’s been lauded for their bench depth, TFC did not play well late in the game last Tuesday. Eriq Zavaleta, Armando Cooper and Raheem Edwards all came on as substitutes and none of them looked very good - Cooper and Edwards especially.

Edwards pulled off just three passes on nine attempts. Cooper managed seven, just over half of his attempted passes. Despite being on the field for less than 10 minutes, Edwards committed two fouls, and Cooper gave the ball away twice.

Zavaleta wasn’t bad, making just nine touches in his 20 minutes or so. I expect him to be back in the starting lineup this week. As for the other two, though, it’s very likely that one of them comes on as a substitute on Wednesday. They will need to answer the call a lot better than they did last week.

In all likelihood, if Edwards comes on, TFC will be searching for a goal. That means he can’t be giving the ball away like he did on Tuesday. He may be young and inexperienced, which may explain some jitters in a conference final game, but he has to be better than that, as does Cooper.