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Massive Scouting Report: Wingbacks, tactical questions & a Trillium Cup preview

A look at the matchup between Columbus and Toronto

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC
The first installment of the Trillium Cup rivalry will be played Saturday.
Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

After a disappointing result — and performance — last week against the Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew SC will try to rebound with a second consecutive rivalry showdown as it welcomes (or not) Toronto FC to MAPFRE Stadium.

TFC hasn’t lit the world on fire through one month of MLS action, but it is still unbeaten. And the Reds have a couple guys you may have heard of before who can cause some problems.

Here’s a look at what to expect from Toronto and what it might mean for the Black & Gold.

What Toronto looks like

But in soccer terms ...

I don’t think TFC coach Greg Vanney gets enough credit for what he did with this team last year (and how he’s developed as a coach). After spending some time trying to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, last year he settled on a 3-5-2 that depends on wingbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour to provide width, Michael Bradley as a true defensive midfielder who shields the back line and pulls the strings from deep and an attack that relies on the quality of the two guys up top (profiled a little bit here).

In case you’ve forgotten their names: Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. They’ve taken the mantle of “Best Striker Partnership in MLS” after Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey left it behind.

Armando Cooper is a box-to-box presence while Victor Vasquez has been a complementary piece to the attack, leading the team with 2.04 key passes per 96 minutes. He had the secondary assist on TFC’s glorious goal last week against Atlanta United, which, if you haven’t seen it yet...

Michael Bradley is second on the team in the KPp96 category (1.82) and leads the team in touches and passes, so it shows how much he’s able to affect the game from a deep position (his strength, really).

Here’s Toronto’s Opta dashboard from last week’s game against Atlanta. It shows the team’s shape and how they like to move the ball.

Toronto dashboard vs. ATL

As you can see, TFC likes to push the ball wide, often eschewing the center of the park until it gets to the attacking third, which it tries to get to relatively quickly. Toronto’s passing and possession numbers are up a little bit from last year though — the Reds are currently possessing the ball at a 53.2-percent clip, which is the exact same number as Columbus.

Big news

Toronto’s veteran center back Drew Moor was ruled out Friday with an irregular heartbeat, certainly not something you mess with until you have a good grasp on the condition. While we all certainly wish a safe and swift recovery/management of the situation for Moor, it certainly plays to Columbus’ advantage on the field.

Moor’s addition last season went a long way in shoring up TFC’s long-documented defensive struggles. His absence likely leaves Toronto’s back line as Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund and Chris Mavinga, the latter of which had some problematic moments last week in his first career start.

One would think that should be something the Black & Gold can take advantage of.

Back in the fold

Federico Higuain and Harrison Afful are both expected to be back for CCSC, which should do wonders for the Black & Gold’s ability to control the ball and create danger in the attack.

It seems likely that Jonathan Mensah will remain out. Certainly Giovinco and Altidore will create a stiff challenge for rookie Alex Crognale, who came back down to earth a little bit last week. Is there a chance GB turns to Josh Williams, who provides a veteran presence and a lot of familiarity with his former TFC teammates?

What is Toronto, really?

It’s hard to get a read on TFC’s early-season results. The club entered the season projected to be the class of the Eastern Conference — at least among its top two or three teams. But to start the season, Toronto has settled for moderate results, winning just one game and drawing four.

Of course, it’s still unbeaten, and by talent alone one would expect the team to figure out how to get over the hump.

But a look at the schedule so far doesn’t exactly impress. Toronto began the season against Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia Union, two teams that have had unabashed struggles. TFC got its lone win against a Vancouver Whitecaps team that has lost three of its four MLS matches and was down a man for the final 20 minutes. Then there was a scoreless draw against a Sporting Kansas City team with an excellent defense but which, until this past weekend, couldn’t find the goal.

It’s all difficult to get a read on.

What approach will Crew SC take?

Gregg Berhalter has shown a willingness to tinker tactically more this season, and the matchup with Toronto FC seems like one in which it’s viable to ask the question, “Is this when Columbus returns to the 3-4-2-1?”

Earlier in the week, Nathaniel Marhefka and I discussed it briefly.

The three-man back line obviously provides more defensive stability, and it also offers an extra man to help deal with TFC’s two strikers. That leaves a free defender to deal with Giovinco’s movement, Vasquez’s willingness to push as high as the forwards when in and around the box and potential bombing runs from Cooper, as well as just clog up the box and keep things a little further from goal.

With the wingbacks the only wide players for Toronto, CCSC’s fullbacks can match up one-on-one with them and free up other personnel to deal with responsibilities elsewhere, as well as potentially counter up the middle (something Artur likes to do).

In the attack, having Justin Meram and Federico Higuain (who Berhalter indicated will return) in spots underneath Ola Kamara, it provides an opportunity to either drag Bradley around or pull one of the center backs out, providing lanes for the channel-running Kamara.

There is certainly an argument to stick with the familiar 4-2-3-1, though.

First, Mensah’s expected absence is a blow to the depth at CB.

Second, it would provide extra help out wide going both ways — the fullbacks would have a little more freedom to help with a roaming Giovinco on the defensive end, and wingers could help disrupt a wide push higher up the field.

And when TFC is in possession and pinning Harrison Afful and Juuka Raitala deep, it would provide wing play to hit Toronto in a vulnerable area. When CCSC is in possession, wingers could pin TFC’s wingbacks deep and disrupt the transition game.

From an attacking standpoint, when TFC’s wingbacks get high (which they do — see Morrow’s goal assisted by fellow wingback Beitashour last week), the gap in behind them is ripe for countering. Having Meram, Ethan Finlay, or even Kekutah Manneh (more likely as a sub, if he’s in the 18) drive into those gaps could create mayhem. That’s something you lose in a three-CB system.

What do you think we’ll see Saturday? What do you want to see? Share in the comments below.

Oh. And listen to the Massive Matchday podcast for more discussion of the upcoming game.