Last Saturday Columbus Crew SC started their season off with a loss at the Houston Dynamo, falling victim to some bad luck, ineffective finishing, and a brick wall named Tyler Deric. After that frustrating evening, deep in the heart of Texas, the Black and Gold return home to the friendly confines of the freshly dubbed and upgraded MAPFRE Stadium to welcome perennial "rival" Toronto FC.
Don Garber's (alleged) pet project started their season off with a 3-1 victory against fellow Canuck's, the Vancouver Whitecaps. Jozy Altidore, making his triumphant return to MLS after another disastrous spell in England, scored two goal, sandwiching a Robbie Findley goal in the middle, to run out victors.
Columbus have not tasted defeat in a home opener in a decade, with five wins and five draws in the last ten opening home matches. Crew SC will also be looking to avenge last year's season sweep, a first for the club, and take the first steps towards regaining the Trillium Cup, which the Black and Gold have won five of the seven seasons it has been contested.
This will be the fourth time TFC will be the opponents for the opening home fixture of the season, and the first since 2010. Crew SC won two of the three, drawing one. But that was then. Both teams look very different than their counterparts of just five years ago. 2008-2010 are, to many Columbus fans, the Glory Years. Lead by Guillermo Barros Schelotto the Crew (not yet SC) won the MLS Cup and Supporter's Shield double in 2008, and followed it with the Shield again in 2009.
The following year, things began to go south, but on March 27th, opening night, there was little to indicate that. Crew SC won 2-0 over Toronto on the back of goals from Andy Iro and Schelotto, and all was right in the world. But the teams of TFC's early days did not feature the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley.
It was one of the big stories of the MLS offseason. THE big story, if you paid attention only to MLSsoccer.com, thanks to their convenient ignoring of the labor dispute. Toronto, despite never making the playoffs, have become a destination franchise in MLS, landing Altidore from Sunderland in the English Premiere League and Giovinco from Juventus in Italy. This star power augments last season's marquee signing in Bradley.
This trio would pose a threat to any defense in the league. In addition to the big ticket signings, that other team up north also brought in Polish defender Damien Perquis from Real Betis in Spain, as well as defensive midfielder Benoît Cheyrou of Ligue 1 side Olympique de Marseille. The lineup that faces the Black and Gold in the inaugural game of the MAPFRE Stadium era will be a much sterner test than the games that opened the season in 2008-2010.
But what of the home side? Falling victim to a goal keeper having a career night and a Giles Barnes goal, Crew SC left Texas empty handed. As Patrick Guldan pointed out, they created chances, but not excellent chances. Kei Kamara had a couple of decent looks, but couldn't manage to beat Deric. The Black and Gold had long stretches where they controlled the game, and head coach Gregg Berhalter will have plenty of positives to build on, but the end result was disappointing.
A concerning feature of the game was Federico Higuain being subbed off in the 76th minute. There's been no official word on an injury as of this writing, though the Argentine playmaker was held out of practice at least once this week, though Berhalter said it was due to the playing surface, turf, at Ohio Dominican where they practiced.
Another worry for Crew SC Fans is the news that broke Thursday afternoon. Tony Tchani has been suspended by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for his tackle that earned him a yellow in the Houston game. This leaves Columbus without their first choice midfield pairing. Mohammed Saeid is the most likely replacement, though Kevan George has played holding mid in the past, and Hector Jimenez featured centrally in preseason. Whatever option Berhalter selects will have a tough task in front of them.
Tchani is the only "first team" player unavailable, as Justin Meram is slated to return, likely as a starter, after his suspension held him out last week against the Dynamo. Romain Gall is the only injury concern for Crew SC, but he was unlikely to feature heavily in this contest anyway.
Toronto reports "no injury concerns", so Greg Vanney will have a full compliment to choose from.
Most pundits seem to think that TFC's season will live or die on the shoulders of Altidore. This is, naturally, an over-simplification, but it is undeniable that a great deal of pressure will fall on Altidore's shoulders. It would also be natural to assume that the key to victory for the Black and Gold would be in stopping TFC's American striker. This is true, though the key could be less in shutting down Jozy himself, and more in shutting down the service to him. Altidore had one goal in 42 appearances for Sunderland. One.
The biggest complaint lodged by Altidore's backers was the lack of good service to him. There is more than a little truth to that complaint, though he hardly shined during his spells in England in general. Back in MLS, the proposition is a little different, as the standards of defending are not quite as high. Altidore is a strong, bruising forward, not a technical marvel. He is adept at "bullying" central defenders, creating chances from sheer physicality. He will have a tough time doing that against the massive center back pairing of Emanuel Pogatetz and Michael Parkhurst.
Altidore will be relying primarily on service from his midfield, and the most likely candidates to provide that will be the two marquee midfielders, Giovinco and Bradley, the former creating TFC's first goal in their opening match with a well placed through ball for the big forward to run on to. It will fall to whomever is in the central midfield to try to shut down this service. Very few, if any, players in MLS would be capable of man-marking either one of the two, so it will be a team effort in the middle of the park on Saturday.
On the offensive side TFC's central defenders looked less than impressive at moments in their opening weekend match. The goal they conceded came on a long ball over the top that they lacked the speed to close down, and at times they seemed to have positioning and spacing issues that Crew SC could well exploit.
It will come down to the wingers to stretch the field and draw the defense out of their preferred shape, leaving Kamara room to operate. This is something that, on paper, the team is well equipped to do. Ethan Finlay and Meram are both burners. If the finishing is up to par, the Black and Gold could will bag a couple of goals.
But that's the eternal "if" for Crew SC fans. We will see Saturday night.