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When a slump is barely a slump, width matters and another Trillium Cup installment

Columbus Crew SC and Toronto FC meet again. Here are some things to keep an eye on.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Depending upon where you fall on a sliding scale, the current doldrums midway through the Columbus Crew SC campaign either have you deliriously panicked or morosely affected. Or, if you’re the Massive Report’s Pat Murphy, poo-pooing the naysayers in favor of a steadily optimistic outlook.

Club owner Anthony Precourt, for one, has made his feelings known:

If this is, indeed, the low point, the climb upward begins today in a midweek game at Toronto FC in the second of three Trillium Cup installments this season.

In the first meeting back in May, the two rivals stumbled to a scoreless draw. Looking back at my postmatch thoughts, a lot of the questions/issues remain.

Here are some things to keep an eye on as the two teams face off again. With a short turnaround for this midweek game, we’ll keep this short and sweet as well. If you want to read more about TFC, check out the pregame breakdown of the first game. Much of that still applies.

Zone 14

I talked about it last time around, and it still applies. No team in Major League Soccer takes more shots from outside the box than TFC. Fifty percent, in fact.

Two weeks ago, against the Seattle Sounders, six of Toronto’s 12 shots came from outside the 18-yard box. Last time out, against the Chicago Fire, TFC launched a whopping 23 shots ... with 14 from outside the box. That’s absurd. Most of the league doesn’t even average 14 shots a game.

This is obviously part of the Reds’ problem. They’ve managed just one goal in three of their last four games. Sebastian Giovinco drops back to get on the ball and help create and there’s no traditional No. 9 to get in the box, even when Lil’ Sebastian is playing paired up top with another striker. That forward has been most recently been Jordan Hamilton, who is still finding his feet as a professional and hasn’t yet forced the defense back.

That said, this is a team that poses a threat from long range as long as Giovinco is on the field. Zone 14 is his home.

Crew SC has to close out and Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani have to have better performances than they’ve put in recently.

Injury party

We all know about the Crew SC injuries. Toronto has had its share as well. The current list of Reds unable to play is long and notable. Clint Irwin, Michael Bradley and Will Johnson are all out, and those are just the surefire starters.

The big news is that Jozy Altidore may return this week, according to the folks at Waking the Red. Altidore has not played in some time so it’s hard to believe he’d be at 90 minutes match fit, but any time he does spend on the field is a game changer. The American striker has his critics, but his holdup play and the ability to stay high, pull defenders and create space for Giovinco to operate underneath should not be underestimated.

The Giovinco slump

Don’t buy it. If there are issues with TFC, it’s not this guy. He’s always been a high-volume shooter, and he attempted 13 shots against Chicago on the weekend. Not all of them were from very dangerous positions, but he’s good enough to make just about anything dangerous, and in many cases his off-target shots were inches or feet away from being goals.

Columbus’ defensive issues showed up last week against New England. Tyson Wahl will return from red-card suspension which, depending on what you think of Wahl, will either help steady the ship or make no difference at all.

No matter how you slice it, a veteran defender is a better option than guys with next to no experience at center back, so that’s good news for Black & Gold fans.

While the Italian attacker seems ripe to break out of his slump, the Crew SC defense has to continue to make him shoot from distance. And it can’t take the bait — stay organized, avoid lunging in and don’t allow the entire defense to get sucked in.

The thing is, even when he’s not putting the ball in the back of the net, his gravity is powerful. Giovinco’s pull was why Toronto scored its lone goal last week:

The defenders either step up on Giovinco or hesitate just a step to account for him, and the ball and Justin Morrow (and Hamilton) get behind for the goal. This is also why you have to do as much as you can to stop the ball before it gets to Giovinco. Once he's in that final third running at the defense, he's the one pulling the strings.

Control the field

Toronto does not play a ton in its opponents third of the field. It is in the bottom third of MLS in that category.

They also get all their width from the fullbacks.

Here is the team dashboard for TFC against Seattle two weeks ago:

TFC vs. Seattle
FourFourTwo.com
TFC vs. Chicago

They played ridiculously and uncharacteristically high up the field against the Fire because, well, the Fire are not very good. For all of Columbus’ struggles with results, it should be able to win a possession battle and keep Toronto from doing that again (and, as a result, holding them to less than 23 shots). That’s a start, because it helps control the field.

The other thing Crew SC needs to do is stretch the field from touchline to touchline. It’s unclear exactly what sort of formation TFC will play in — it’s used variations of the 4-4-2 throughout the season; in the last two weeks it’s used both a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2 diamond. The commonality, though, is width from the fullbacks. Last week, each of the fullbacks touched the ball 75 times, which was among the top three or four players on the team. At least 50 percent of the touches were coming in Chicago's half, so these guys get up the field.

This should play into Columbus’ hands — the Black & Gold always want to play wide, but they’ve been less effective with it for various reasons. This is a game where Harrison Afful can thrive and where Ethan Finlay needs to. Cedrick Mabwati made a return to the field off the bench last week, and this midweek scenario could be the perfect opportunity to get him some significant minutes.

The key will be to either pin Toronto’s fullbacks deep or to get in behind them when they’re high up the field, because there won’t be much support in those areas, and it will disrupt TFC going both ways.

It also could be useful to press a little bit. If you look at those dashboards, Toronto wasn't super successful playing long out of the back. They want to use those wide outlets. Forcing the Reds to make quicker decisions and play longer balls will disrupt their buildup, especially if/when Altidore is not on the field.

Be physical but smart

This is easy to understand. Columbus has been abysmal on set pieces, so don’t concede them. It’s even more important with Giovinco standing over dead balls. I don’t care what his goal-scoring struggles are right now, are you really convinced that next time this won’t go in the back of the net?: