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Columbus loss just the wake-up call Toronto FC needed

The Reds have been brought back to Earth ahead of their Tigres tie.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Sebastian Giovinco wasn’t happy after Saturday’s game.

“We continue to think about what happened last year,” he told media. “I think we have to change the mentality.”

His Toronto FC had just been shocked at home by the Columbus Crew, in a game where nothing seemed to go right for the Reds. Even though TFC had plenty of looks in and around the attacking third, they couldn’t quite beat Zack Steffen.

Ager Aketxe and Gregory van der Wiel both looked well behind the pace defensively, even though Aketxe definitely showed promise in attack. Jozy Altidore continued to struggle as well, misjudging the ball’s path on several occasions.

There are plenty of things this loss can be attributed to, but Seba may well be right. The Reds entered the game as the Best Team in MLS History™. They paraded out the MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, and the Voyageurs Cup before the game.

Of course, they’re absolutely justified in recognizing last year’s success in their MLS home opener. But still, that’s exactly the reason why they’re going to have a target on their backs all year.

“This year is more difficult,” said Giovinco. “The other teams play like a final.”

Judging from the way Columbus celebrated their goals on Saturday, MLS teams are indeed going to treat a game against Toronto FC like a final.

It’s been a while since the Reds got a serious slap in the face. Everything in preseason this year suggested they’d continue to roll, and that their confidence had never been higher. Maybe it was too high.

“There’s no place else to look other than at ourselves,” said Michael Bradley on Saturday. “We understand we have to be better. We have to continue to get better, get sharper.”

Honestly, though, I think there’s a lot more cause for optimism than one might think after that loss. If nothing else, TFC learned a lot.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

They learned that they can’t win every game 4-3, throwing everything into attack at the expense of defending. They learned that their newcomers will take a bit of time to get acclimated to MLS. Perhaps most importantly, though, they learned the key weakness of their 4-4-2 diamond formation.

Right off the bat, Greg Vanney acknowledged that you can’t play possession football if you don’t have the ball.

“If we’re going to play in a diamond and not have possession of the ball, then you end up defending deep because you can’t control the outside wide spaces as easily because you don’t cover as much of the width,” he said.

“The importance of the diamond is that we have more of the ball, we force them to have to defend us and chase us.”

The thing is, TFC did have more of the ball than Columbus. They just couldn’t get it to the right places, in the first half at least (before they went back to the 3-5-2). Check out their passes from the opening 45:

The diamond does, however, mean that TFC can be neutralized pretty well by a high press, which both Columbus and the Colorado Rapids used to some success.

“In the first half it was tough for us to get balls behind their back line from the position that they were pressing us,” said Vanney. “If you want to relieve the pressure it’s just about finding a runner and putting it behind their back line.”

That wasn’t something they could do on Saturday, though, in part because of the wind and the field conditions.

All this is why I’d absolutely suggest TFC go back to the 3-5-2 against Tigres. It’s very unlikely Toronto have much of the ball, and there’s a decent chance they’ll be on the back foot on multiple occasions.

The 3-5-2 not only provides extra cover at the back, but its width can probably help TFC on the counter-attack a little better. They looked extremely uncomfortable attacking through the middle on Saturday, especially on the bumpy pitch, so getting it out a little more to Justin Morrow and (possibly) Auro on the wings might help spark the attack a bit more.

Ultimately, TFC probably needed to come back down to Earth a little bit. Now that they’ve remembered what losing feels like, they’ll be able to approach their CONCACAF Champions League tie with Tigres with a little less self-assuredness. That’s not to say they’ll lack confidence — usually when they lost last year, they battered the next team they played.

Of course, I’d never expect TFC to underestimate a Mexican champion. Still, a bit of a wake-up call against a team they should beat might help them buckle down a bit.

“It’s a reminder that every year is a new year,” said Vanney. “You’ve got to start again and build.”

MLS: Columbus Crew at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

As for the new signings, I’m not sure how many of them we’ll see on Wednesday. A lot of fans weren’t too pleased with Gregory van der Wiel’s debut, particularly when he was playing on the right side that Columbus repeatedly carved open.

As Vanney told reporters, though, that he’s confident van der Wiel will adapt his style of play for MLS.

“It’s hard as an outside back to be super aggressive when the team is losing the ball quickly, so therefore he’s taking up positions that I think are very responsible to be able to help us in the transition defensively,” said the coach.

“He’s trying to get a sense of what this league is about, get a sense for his relationships on the field, as things come I think he’ll start to play a little faster and be a little more sure of what’s happening.”

So, the Reds now have a little more information about themselves in advance of perhaps the greatest test they’ve ever faced. That’s a good thing. It’s not like one loss will put them out of the MLS race, either, especially with Atlanta United, the Seattle Sounders, and the Portland Timbers all losing on opening weekend as well.

“It’s better this come in the first game than the last,” said Giovinco. “We have to change the mentality for the next game.”

And he’s absolutely right.