Next Tuesday, Columbus Crew SC and Toronto FC will clash for the fourth time in the 2017 MLS season. Different from the three previous matchups, all during the regular season, this one will mean more to both teams as the Eastern Conference title and a spot to play (and host) the MLS Cup Final are now on the line.
The regular season series was won by the Canadians, who posted 5-0 and 2-1 wins, while the Black & Gold took home a 2-1 victory. The matches occured in a six-week span between April and May and both sides changed considerably after that.
Despite losing two of the three games, Crew SC had positive moments when facing the Supporters’ Shield winners. Here are some of the things that worked in those matches:
Pipa was at his absolute best in two of the three contests against Toronto. The Argentinean was vital in the 2-1 home win by assisting on both of Crew SC’s goals and scored for the Black & Gold in the 2-1 defeat with his classic ‘Panenka’ penalty kick.
In Canada, though, he sunk, as did the entire team, being subbed off in the second half.
With nine assists in his last seven matches, Higuain has once again become the catalyst for this Columbus offense after returning from injury midseason.
Pipa helped propel Crew SC into the postseason with his run of form at the end of the year and if the Black & Gold are to be successful against arguably Major League Soccer’s best-ever team, Higuain must play a pivotal part.
Toronto had the second-best defensive system in the regular season and Crew SC used set pieces as an important weapon to overcome that sturdy backline. The team scored two out of its three goals against the Canadians in dead-ball situations with Pipa converting a penalty kick and Justin Meram scoring from a corner kick.
Near the end of 2017, Columbus became even more dangerous on dead-ball situations with center backs Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams and rookie Lalas Abubakar finding the back of the net from restarts.
It is likely going to take more than the three goals scored against TFC during the regular season to defeat the Canadians over the two-leg conference final, meaning scoring on set pieces, or at least creating good chances, is a near must.
The rookies had a prominent role when Crew SC beat Toronto 2-1 back in April. It all started with goalkeeper Zack Steffen — not a rookie, but starting for a full season for the first time in his career — who saved a penalty kick from Jozy Altidore, and ended with Niko Hansen and Alex Crognale assisting on the goals from Ola Kamara and Meram.
For the first time in four years under head coach Gregg Berhalter, rookies featured prominently in the Black & Gold’s success. Steffen will obviously be called upon once again in this round, but Hansen, Crognale — who is nearly fully fit after sports hernia surgery — and Abubakar — who played a big role closing down the last match over the final 15 minutes — must all be ready if their number is called.
Limiting the Stars
Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco are obviously a huge part of what Toronto does, scoring 32 of the team’s 76 goals in 2017. Against Crew SC, though, the duo has performed at a pedestrian level, combining for only one goal out of the eight the Canadians scored.
If Columbus wants to pull the upset over TFC, keeping these two quiet would be a good start. Both are currently suspended for the opening leg at MAPFRE Stadium, although Altidore’s red card was appealed by Toronto, which should make life a bit easier for the Black & Gold, at least to begin the series.
Toronto FC is a good team, certainly the best in the league this season, and will not be an easy out for Crew SC. But the above keys, which were achieved this year, could certainly make a difference in advancing to the MLS Cup Final in expense of the rivals to the north.