Saturday marks the second time this season the two clubs meet, but throw the first one out the window — in Week 2 TFC's new look roster was still finding itself, and a red card to Justin Morrow changed the game and made it very difficult for Toronto to try to come back, ultimately bowing out to Columbus 2-0.
Right now, Sebastian Giovinco is the best player in the league (even if voting fans and the commissioner don't recognize that) and TFC is just three points behind Crew SC in the tight Eastern Conference standings.
Here's a quick breakdown of things that could make the difference this time.
Crew SC must take advantage of absences
Toronto has had to deal with some roster challenges thanks to the Gold Cup, but Jozy Altidore's drop from the U.S. roster after the group stages means he has been back and in the lineup for the Reds. Michael Bradley, however, is still missing. That means TFC's pacemaker is gone.
There are also questions about left back Ashtone Morgan, who picked up a bump in a midweek friendly against Sunderland (who beat TFC thanks to two Jermaine Defoe goals....Oh, the glorious irony...). That means a defense that is generally considered the team's weakness will rely on someone else to step in, likely Warren Creavalle.
The Black & Gold have to take advantage of those absences.
Left wing lock
That's a hockey term (apropos against Toronto), but should TFC have to make a change at fullback, with Morrow likely sliding to the left and Creavalle dropping in, whoever plays on the left wing for Crew SC will be critical. The last time I wrote about that, Columbus did absolutely nothing to prod Montreal Impact right back Nigel Reo-Coker.
Justin Meram is likely the guy on the left, and while he's been a solid piece, it's been a little while since he's really stood out. Now would be a good time to change that. It's also possible Kristinn Steindorsson plays (he did in that game against Montreal), but he's mostly been anonymous. He finally played a part in a goal last week with a nice dummy in the box that led to Ethan Finlay's goal, even if he wasn't officially given an assist. And then there is the looming presence of Cedrick, who at the very least fans would like to see what he can do. It seems unlikely he gets a start for his first appearance, but could be useful bringing speed off the bench and putting Toronto on its heels on that side of the field. Creavalle is capable of getting forward and contributing (and will take long shots), so someone who can pin things back a little could be helpful.
Gregg Berhalter said he doesn't know that it's possible to stop Giovinco. That's fair, and it's clear the Italian is on another level, talent-wise, from basically everyone who steps on the field against him in MLS. But Berhalter obviously knows there are steps to take to try to limit his effectiveness even a small percentage.
So, how? Everyone should know his MO by now — Giovinco is a forward who will drop back to get the ball and play off Jozy Alitdore's holding role. He is dangerous because he makes touches around the top of the 18-yard box facing goal and can either beat a defender (or defenders) with his skill and get a shot off, play a one-two pass or lay the ball off. The defensive issue is this — once he's got the ball in that spot, you're in trouble. The defense is basically rolling the dice at that point to hope they manage to get a foot in or that the striker doesn't finish off the play (which he does most of the time).
Everything must happen before Giovinco even touches the ball if Columbus wants to limit him. The defense has to be aware and stay up high — get caught defending too deep and he is right where he wants to be and he maintains all the control. There has to be pressure in the midfield to try to cut off passing lanes so that it is harder for him to get the ball. That also forces him to move into different spots to get his foot on the ball, and that's important. The defense has to force him away from the top of the 18.
Even with all that, there's a good chance he'll make a play. But that's a start.
Both teams' defensive mids
Although, to my eyes, he looked a little bit slow to adjust to the physicality of the league early in the season, Benoit Cheyrou has settle in nicely for TFC and been critical in the defensive midfield. He will shield the back four for the Reds, which makes his matchup with Federico Higuain critical for both sides.
Finlay's fine form right now is huge for Columbus, but Crew SC is only clicking when Higuain is playing well. Cheyrou will try to prevent that from happening. If Pipa can drag him around the midfield and keep him occupied it opens up areas for other attackers and prevents Cheyrou from helping his team transition to the attack, which is one of his roles.
On the other side, Tony Tchani, Will Trapp and Mohamed Saeid — whatever combination of that plays — will be huge. Trapp seems more comfortable than Saeid defending against the counter attack, and that will be important against a team that often concedes possession. They will also need to cut down passing lanes in front of Giovinco, as previously mentioned, and track Jonathan Osorio. Osorio starts on the left wing, but he's not a traditional winger. He is the team's best creator out of the midfield, especially with Bradley out, and TFC will look for him to cut in and attack. The Crew SC defensive midfielders have to disrupt his combination with the two strikers. He has more key passes than anyone on the team outside the big three.
Columbus' defensive selection
We'll learn a lot by seeing who Berhalter puts in the starting 11 on defense. The questions at right back continue and Toronto FC likes to build from the center part of the field and left. With the potential to have Giovinco, Osorio and and an overlapping Morrow setting up shop on that side, will the Black & Gold try to pin them back with Hector Jimenez or play more conservatively with the defense of Chad Barson or Chris Klute? All three have shown different types of warts at times, so getting that selection right will be critical.
Then there's the cloud hanging over center back. Tyson Wahl was an admirable fill-in, but I'm not sure any Columbus fans love the idea of him starting for half a season. He's been a bit lucky to not have been exposed more, and Toronto can certainly expose a defense. Whether we see him or Emanuel Pogatetz will tell us a lot about whether a message was being sent to Pogatetz or whether the coaching staff has truly lost faith in him. For the sake of Crew SC fans, let's hope it's just a wake up call and that Pogatetz received it, loud and clear.
This is a matchup in which Columbus should have a good amount of possession, just as it likes. But Crew SC must still work quickly. Against a TFC defense that can often look like the red cape in a bull fight — OLE! — getting into one-on-one or two-on-one matchups against the back four should maximize opportunities for the Black & Gold.
That defensive isolation is important. Depending on what personnel Toronto goes with in the midfield, there is plenty of defensive help there. Cheyrou is a given, but Collen Warner and Marco Delgado both have defensive tendencies, and should Morgan be healthy, Creavalle could even play in the midfield. So there are plenty of bodies who can help out. If Columbus gives them time to do that — and bunker in — we all know how much Crew SC has struggled to break that down (though the good news is Kamara should get some aerial chances against a bad aerial team).
Work quickly, keep the defense on its heels and, consequently, pin Toronto back.