Toronto FC head back on the road this weekend for the first installment in 2017’s Trillium Cup. After a pair of home draws, the Reds are still unbeaten this year, but have just one win to show for it from five games.
The Columbus Crew, on the other hand, have been markedly more inconsistent through their six matches to start 2017. Three wins and a draw have them in an early first place in the Eastern Conference, but they’ve also lost to both the Houston Dynamo and Chicago Fire.
It’s probably not much of a bad thing that this one’s on the road for TFC, because with Leafs and Raptors playoff games on the same day it’d be a tough sell to fill up BMO Field. That said, Columbus are a strong team at home.
Here are three things to watch for in this weekend’s game.
1. The possession battle
Both TFC and the Crew like to play with the ball, each team averaging about 53% possession in their games this season. For Columbus, that often comes down to Wil Trapp and Artur in central midfield. The Crew’s game plan typically involved playing short passes from the middle toward the wings through those two.
Trapp, already an MLS All-Star at just 24, leads the league in passes per game with 78.3, with Artur making 51.2. The Crew have the best pass success rate in MLS at 82.6% as well, making it tough to get the ball from them.
TFC are in the bottom half of the league in both tackles and interceptions, but that’s just indicative of their own possession-minded play. Michael Bradley is very close behind Trapp in passing statistics, and as usual it’ll be him dictating play from around the central circle.
Both teams here will be looking to control the play and set the pace. For Toronto, it’ll be important for wing-backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour to put a stop to the Crew’s attempt to get the ball out wide.
2. Keep the attack rolling
Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of last weekend’s game against Atlanta United was TFC’s offensive breakout. Sebastian Giovinco finally scored his first goal of 2017 on a nifty bit of link-up play between himself, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez.
The Crew invested heavily in their defence in the offseason, adding a new designated player in centre-back Jonathan Mensah. They have two clean sheets so far, but have also conceded seven goals, including three to Houston.
Greg Vanney surprised some of us with his ultra-attacking use of Vazquez last weekend, converting the 3-5-2 formation almost to a 3-4-3, with the Spaniard playing like another forward. TFC’s front trio is capable of being an absolute monster in MLS — Giovinco and Altidore alone are one of the league’s best attacking duos — and now is the time for them to establish themselves.
Against Columbus, TFC will get their opportunities. They’ll be trying to clog up the box and close the space for Toronto’s forwards, but if all three are working together well then it may be a matter of Giovinco and Altidore finishing their chances.
3. Defensive return to form
Vanney didn’t hold back last Saturday in criticizing the play of Chris Mavinga in his first MLS start. He pointed out that the French centre-back was behind the play for most of the game, especially on Atlanta’s two goals.
With Drew Moor now ruled out, we will see Nick Hagglund back in the starting XI and the question becomes whether Mavinga continues or Jason Hernandez is handed his debut. The latter was, presumably, brought in to provide veteran cover in the event TFC’s best defender was ruled out for any period of time, but may not be match fit.
If Columbus win the battles in midfield and secure the possession they want, then they have some very dangerous attacking options. Ola Kamara and Justin Meram both have three goals this year and Federico Higuain looks fit to return to play and help out with generating chances.
Kekuta Manneh, as well, acquired recently from Vancouver, is still looking for his debut in a Crew uniform. He’s a talented young player who could provide yet another threat to Toronto’s defensive line.
Even without Moor, TFC have to make sure they continue in the good defensive habits they’ve been developing this year.