Columbus Crew SC came into the season with MLS Cup aspirations, but they struggled on defense. They struggled with consistency. A midseason swoon pushed them into the middle of the Eastern Conference pack. Now they face Toronto FC with a chance to lock down a playoff spot and regain some of that early season promise.
Toronto came into the season with a long road trip and some big names and struggled, but they've slowly come together as a team, propelled by the otherworldly performances of Sebastian Giovinco. Their win on Wednesday propelled them above Crew SC into second in the Eastern Conference.
Both sides know what to expect on offense. Crew SC will run the ball wide and then push centrally to Kei Kamara. It's a formula that has worked to the tune of 22 goals for Kamara, an outstanding season from Ethan Finlay, and some very good supporting efforts out of Federico Higuain and Justin Meram. Columbus plays one way and it's gotten them one of the best offensive records in the league with a 1.6 goals per game average.
Toronto counters with an even better offense. They average nearly 1.8 goals per game with an attack spearheaded by one of the best players MLS has seen. Giovinco will float between the lines, find the ball, and, for lack of a better phrase, make magic happen. He has 22 goals, but has added 15 assists. He's simply unstoppable with the ability to create a goal out of nothing or find the right pass.
Both sides have a key players, but Toronto will be able lean on a U.S. international to help out. With Giovinco attracting the attention, Michael Bradley is able to find little pockets of space and turn them into opportunities. Their other national teamer will be suspended. Jozy Altidore won't be available after being ejected from the bench.
The game may turn into "next goal wins" as neither teams have a solid defense, with both teams in the bottom five of MLS. Crew SC's defense is often over extended and struggling with spacing issues. Toronto have cycled through schemes and defenders to try and stop the leaky defense. Nothing has worked consistently. There will be goals on both sides.
The more important result may be off the field for Crew SC. They are a near lock to make the playoffs. They only have to get a single point. They just haven't been able to do that for two weeks in a row now. And Orlando City is making an improbable charge up the standings with another win last night. They are a mere three points behind Crew SC.
A Crew SC win will push them up near the top of the Eastern Conference with a chance at a bye. A tie will maintain the status quo in the standings, but put that "x" next to them to secure that playoff spot. A loss — zero points — in Toronto and things get interesting. Columbus has the tiebreaker, plus seven over Orlando, but they could sink to sixth by the end of the weekend. That would give them a week to think about squandering another chance.
That off field effect may be even bigger. There is a fragility to this team. They've struggled with keeping focus during games and have given up soft goals. They've struggled when faced with pressure on the ball. The precision passing game goes awry and the offense sputters. None of that would compare to a week to think about missing another chance to lock in the playoffs and the prospect of a must win game to end the regular season.
A single point gets the Black and Gold in the playoffs. A loss, lets not think about it right now. We'd have all week to do that.
This is it. The waiting is over. This is the game of the season.