Soccer is obviously a team sport, but often matches are decided by individual performances. That might be the case on Tuesday, when Columbus Crew SC hosts Toronto FC in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Finals at MAPFRE Stadium.
Both Columbus and Toronto have very solid game systems, but in a match played at this level, individual talent tends to be the factor that separates good performances from victories.
With both Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore suspended in the first leg, Crew SC could have an advantage talent-wise, but the Black & Gold need to make sure they prevail in three specific individual matchups in order to be in good position to build some advantage in front of its home fans.
Federico Higuain vs. Michael Bradley
Probably the two most technically gifted players on the field in this series, Federico Higuain and Michael Bradley will compete for the ball between the boxes and whoever leaves this duel on top should be able to help his team to win.
Pipa is a vital player in Gregg Berhalter’s system, dictating the tempo and articulating the most dangerous offensive actions for Crew SC. The Argentinean is having a solid season with nine goals and 16 assists and his intelligent and accurate passes are a driving force for the club’s success.
Higuain has showed a higher effort level in the defensive side of the ball in the playoffs and it’s important that he keeps doing that against Toronto. Bradley has the fourth-most touches in Major League Soccer and he plays a pivotal role in building the game from the back, one that might be even more important with Altidore and Giovinco out.
Wil Trapp vs. Victor Vazquez
In the same area of the field, Wil Trapp and Victor Vazquez will also battle for the ball. It will be a similar matchup as the Higuain-Bradley one and its outcome will be equally impactful in the final score.
Trapp, who’s wearing Crew SC’s captain’s armband for the first time this year, experienced a career year with five assists. The 24-year-old midfielder made the most of his passing skills, ranking among the top 10 in the league in passing accuracy (88.6 percent) and third in touches.
The Gahanna native, though, will have to step up his defensive game to stop Vasquez, a frontrunner for MLS’s Newcomer of the Year award. The Spaniard had a Pipa-level season, with the same nine goals and 16 assists, and will be the center of Toronto’s offense in the absences of Altidore and Giovinco.
Harrison Afful vs. Justin Morrow
In the flanks, the spotlights will turn to Harrison Afful and Justin Morrow. Two of the best fullbacks in the league, the Ghanaian and the Cleveland native must execute very efficient games on both sides of the ball.
Morrow is undoubtedly having the best season of the two, proving to be a key piece in Toronto’s game plan. Playing as a left wingback, the 30-year-old has scored a career-high eight goals so far, which helped him return to the U.S. Men’s National Team after four years.
Afful, on the other hand, had a quieter season than he did for the Crew in 2015 and 2016. His talent level is unbelievable, though, as he showed by scoring an absolute wonderful goal in the 4-1 win over New York City FC in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. With such skills, the Ghanaian international is always a threat.
Who do you think will prevail in each of these duels? Any other interesting matchup you are anticipating? Let us know in the comment section below.