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Crossing the Touchline: Talking Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC with James Grossi of Waking the Red

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TFC and Crew SC renew their Trillium Cup Rivalry on Saturday night. Pat Murphy went to the source, SB Nation's Toronto site, to chat about the upcoming match.

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC open newly named MAPFRE Stadium for 2015 on Saturday night, taking on Toronto FC in the first leg of the Trillium Cup.

The Black and Gold dominated their opening game of the MLS season against the Houston Dynamo, but left Texas 1-0 losers thanks to a remarkable performance by Dynamo goalkeeper Tyler Deric. They hope the home field advantage will help turn great chances into goals in this contest.

TFC will play their second of eight straight games on the road to begin the season as renovations finish at BMO Field. They opened the MLS campaign with a 3-1 victory over Canadian rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps. In that game, new signing and U.S. Men's National Team forward Jozy Altidore scored twice.

Questions for Waking the Red

Massive Report: Jozy Altidore is a name U.S. fans are very familiar with and he scored twice on his debut for TFC. In what ways can he help Toronto that last year's expensive striker Jermain Defoe did not?

Waking the Red: The most import faculty that Altidore will bring which Defoe lacked was a willingness to be here, combined with a certain excitement at being back in MLS, and with Toronto. Defoe was never the most outgoing personality, and while Altidore is hardly the vociferous sort, that he will not get bored with a North American fling and look to slink off at the first sign of trouble is promising.

Of course, his move can be seen as a demotion of sorts, leaving England to return to MLS, but it is a challenge, namely to bring some respect to one of the league's perennial underperformers, that he can get behind. And a chance to play with international teammate Michael Bradley while doing so is part of that appeal. At the heart of the professional game is a kernel of that sheer childhood joy of playing; something his time in Sunderland was severely lacking.

Speaking specifically to on the field, what Altidore immediately offers is more of a presence in the box. Defoe was a predator of the highest order, but his lack of size was a detriment given how large MLS centre-backs tend to be - there was one incident where Defoe squared up to David Horst in Houston that was exemplary (and rather comically so) of that fact. Altidore's strength was evident in winning the penalty against Vancouver, while his potential for getting on the end of crosses will allow Toronto to make better use of their wide play. Added to that, his ability to hold up play should see more TFC players getting into the area - a detriment that made scoring much more difficult in 2014 than it should have been.

MR: The Reds are still looking for their first MLS Cup Playoff appearance since entering the league in 2007. Many believed the additions a year ago would finally put the team over the hump, but that did not happen. What is different this year that makes this team a legitimate playoff and MLS Cup contender?

WtR: As the saying goes (sort of), eight-times bitten, ninth time shy. 
Many here in Toronto will reserve their judgment as to whether this will be the team to end that hex for much later in the season - sports teams in this city are seriously cursed. Last season's edition looked a lock to break the jinx through the first few months, only to crumble when the summer schedule piled up.

This year's schedule is similarly vexing, with only six games through the first two months and then busy stretches through May and August, while a host of players will be unavailable in between those two months due to the midsummer Gold Cup.

Add to that the European imports - Sebastian Giovinco, Benoit Cheyrou, Damien Perquis, and Altidore - are bound to suffer a dip in form at some point as their physical schedules adjust to the change of season; one cannot play at the top level for a year-plus.

And the eventual injuries that come with a long season, made more risky by a lack of depth, especially on the back-line, and there a plenty of reasons to proceed with caution.

As to what could make them different, they seem to be a group that has coalesced quickly, while overcoming a troublesome first half-hour in Vancouver before seeing out the match with a confident professionalism was indeed encouraging. Such has never been a trademark of TFC, who are more renown for conceding late than seeing a game to the end.

The trick will be making it through August without another coach getting fired.

MR: Crew SC fans are certainly familiar with the star names for Toronto, but who are some other players that they may not heard of yet but could play a big part in TFC's 2015 campaign?

WtR: The first name that comes to mind is Benoit Cheyrou, a French midfielder acquired from Marseille in the off-season. He will be a crucial foil to all the good work that Bradley is capable of doing in the midfield and is prone to a touch of Gallic flare that should turn some heads throughout the season. His passing and calmness on the ball will allow the likes of Giovinco, Jonathan Osorio, Robbie Findley, and Jackson the time and space to get open and make plays further up field.

Way off the beaten track a trio of players who will be critical to any success to be had this season are Mark Bloom, Warren Creavalle, and Cincinnati-born Nick Hagglund. Bloom and Creavalle will compete for the right-back position - Creavalle got the nod in the opener, while Hagglund can feature there or at centre-back. Justin Morrow has left-back locked down, but those three will be called upon regularly to shore up the side's weakest aspect: the back-line.
Bloom really impressed once he got up to pace - he was roasted by Thierry Henry on one memorable goal early in his MLS career - after joining on loan from the Atlanta Silverbacks at the end 2013, while Creavalle looked very shaky in his limited minutes following his trade from Houston last year, but has since settled somewhat. Those two need to step up, while Hagglund, who did very well as a rookie last year, must eliminate a few weaknesses from his game to minimize any potential drop-off when the eventual injuries strike an ageing, first-choice central defense.

Questions for Massive Report

Waking the Red: Many think highly of the [Crew SC] chances this season and have projected Columbus to contend for the top spots in a weak Eastern Conference, what are the internal and local expectations for 2015?

Massive Report: First, I don't see the Eastern Conference as being weak, in fact I think it is stronger than it was a year ago. I think talent and coaching in this half of the MLS table is being considerably under valued. Although Orlando City SC and New York City FC are both expansion sides, I think both teams have the potential to compete. The New England Revolution are serious contenders after being in the Final last year. Toronto improved in the offseason... I could go on but I think my point is made.

To the actual point of your question, I think the expectations are fairly high in Columbus. The team believes it can exceed what it did a year ago (third place in the East and a first-round exit in the playoffs) and I think most fans are hopeful they can achieve that much.

People are interested to see how some of the new signings fit in, but with the way this team plays and what they did towards the end of the season, not to mention most of the core returning in 2015, fans are excited about the prospects of year two in this new era.

WtR: Gregg Berhalter has begun his second season in charge of the club, how confident, given last year's playoff stumble, are supporters and the club that he is the man to return Columbus to MLS Cup glory?

MR:Very. Last year began with a fast start, but then the team struggled over an eight match stretch. During the rough patch, fans began to question the hiring of Berhalter, who continued to preach patience. The team's turnaround over the second half of the year reassured fans that their head coach in fact knew what he was doing.

Although the playoff performance was disappointing, it wasn't that surprising. New England was the only team hotter than the Black and Gold in MLS to end the season and were ticked off at Crew SC for beating them during that stretch. When fans looked back, they saw a team that gained needed playoff experience and now has motivation to use in 2015.

If the team struggles over the first two months of this season, I'm sure unease will begin to creep up again. Yes, the Black and Gold lost their opening game, but they dominated a Houston Dynamo team who had a goalkeeper play the game of his life. Realistically, that game could have been 3-1 in favor of the visitors instead of 1-0 the other way. That was disappointing for fans, but promising.

Having spent a good amount of time around Berhalter, it is clear he has a plan and the players have all bought in. I believe he's the man for the job and I think that's the sentiment around Columbus.

WtR: How have the fans taken to the new, improved, and rebranded Crew SC since Anthony Precourt purchased the club mid-2013? Any grumblings of discontent or has he managed to tiptoe that line between change and continuity well?

MR: I don't think I've talked to a single fan who isn't happy with Precourt's ownership. The improvements he made to the stadium and at the team's training facility a year ago were needed upgrades, though not all of them noticeable by fans. The rebrand was well received overall. The money he's put in for player acquisitions (Mix Diskerud last year before that fell through being the prime example) is a sign of what he's willing to contribute to improve the team on the field.

This year, he's already secured naming rights for the stadium (now MAPFRE Stadium), something that was always rumored to be a priority under Hunt Sports Group but never seemed likely. Other upgrades to the stadium, including local food and beer specialties, will add something special to the game day experience.

All in all, Precourt has done well. Even when the new jerseys leaked early, he decided to roll with it and embrace them over social media instead of denying or staying quiet. He's handled everything with class and has really been a presence despite living on the West Coast.

So far so good is what I would say.

WtR Barbed Question:

Given Toronto's penchant for spending, will Columbus ever win another Trillium Cup? And does it matter or is it a meaningless trophy?

MR: I threw this one out to the rest of the Massive Report staff to answer and got some fun/good responses back.

Kris Landis said, "Yes, we will. I'll take coaching consistency and a real vision over a giant checkbook wielded by people who don't have any clue how to run a club... plus, it's not like our pockets are quite so shallow anymore."

Sam Fahmi responded with, "I think Toronto itself has proven that throwing money at the problem does not mean success (see missing the playoffs last year). In some situations, smarter player acquisitions and movement is what gets you the results. That's what I think will set the Precourt/Berhalter era apart.

As for the trophy, I think it means more now than it ever has. With Toronto sweeping the series a year ago, this can finally be a rivalry. I don't know if there really needs to be a trophy attached to it to give it the intensity of a serious rivalry, but there is one so someone might as well raise it each year. All starts on Saturday!