For the second time in as many years Columbus Crew SC is in the Eastern Conference Finals for the right to host MLS Cup. Standing in the way are Major League Soccer’s Supporters’ Shield winners Toronto FC.
Both clubs met a similar fate in MLS Cup over the last two years, as each saw a Cascadia team hoist the prestigious trophy on their home ground. The Trillium Cup rivals head into Tuesday’s match looking for a chance to exorcise the demons that haunted them in recent Cup appearances.
How Toronto made it this far
By virtue of a first-round bye, the Reds awaited the winner of a knockout round match between the Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls. After defeating Chicago 4-0, New York and Toronto locked horns for a highly-contested series that ended in a deadlock (2-2) with Toronto claiming the advantage on away goals.
No players were injured, but there were a few casualties for TFC. Designated Players Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco will miss the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final as a result of disciplinary action, Altidore due to a red card and Giovinco becuase of yellow card accumulation.
How Crew SC made it this far
Due to a fifth-place finish in the East, the Black & Gold traveled to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a knockout round match with Atlanta United.
It was a gritty affair that made it through the full 90 minutes and extra time without either side scoring. After heroics by goalkeeper Zack Steffen during play and in the shootout, forward Adam Jahn notched scored the winning penalty kick with his first and only touch of the match.
Crew SC returned home for the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals to find a hostile MAPFRE Stadium after Investor-Operator Anthony Precourt announced he was exploring options to potentially move the team to Austin, TX.
Fans expressed great displeasure with Precourt but supported the team. Crew SC won the first leg over New York City FC 4-1. A 2-0 scoreline in the return leg was nearly enough to see the second see NYCFC through, but the late goal by defender Harrison Afful in the first game made the difference for a Crew SC aggregate.
What to watch for
Guilherme Torres previewed an excellent article on what matchups to watch when both teams play on Tuesday. This is a must read in preparation for this match.
A player that could break the game open for Columbus is midfielder Pedro Santos. The Portuguese Designated Player has yet to find the net for Crew SC, but finds himself in great scoring opportunities. A goal in the conference finals would go a long way towards writing his story with Crew SC.
Defenders Josh Williams and Jonathan Mensah are playing as strong as any other center back pairing in the league right now. That type of consistency was lacking during previous Trillium Cup matches earlier in the season as Jonathan looked very unsettled. Now that the center back tandem has found its rhythm, it should be interesting to see how they handle an offense missing two of their key pieces.
This match presents a huge opportunity for Crew SC to capture a lead at home. Toronto won in the last round on away goals and the Black & Gold hope to avoid the same fate by keeping a clean sheet on Tuesday night.
How Crew SC win
Columbys have to be mentally sharp against Toronto. Five of the eight goals Crew SC allowed to Toronto occurred in either the first 10 minutes or the last 10 minutes of games. The Black & Gold must start and finish strong if they hope to be successful in this series.
Zack Steffen has been coming up huge for the Crew SC throughout the playoffs. The 22 year old has been on fire in the net since the game against Atlanta and looks poised to keep that run going. Without Altidore and Giovinco in the first leg, his confidence will continue to grow as he and the defense are poised for a big evening.
Any other keys to the match or things you’ll be looking for? Let us know in the comment section below.