Another first leg, another goalless game.
After a 16-day break imposed by the FIFA international dates, Columbus and Toronto FC played a scrappy 0-0 tie in the first leg of their Eastern Conference final series Tuesday at MAPFRE Stadium. (Three of the first-leg matches played this postseason have ended goalless.)
TFC hosts the second game next Wednesday at BMO Field.
1. Missing big guns, Toronto FC deploys four in back.
A beleaguered fan base, motivated by a threatened move to Austin, packed the stadium with the team colors of black and yellow. Chants of “Save the Crew! Save the Crew!” rang out throughout the match, but despite the urging of a boisterous sellout crowd and increased pressure in the second half Columbus was unable to get a goal at home.
An attack weakened by the suspensions of Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco along with Crew SC’s attacking threats of Ola Kamara, Justin Meram and Federico Higuian prompted TFC head coach Greg Vanney to deploy a four-man back line rather than the 3-5-2 formation he has preferred for the past season and a half.
Wingbacks Justin Morrow (left) and Steven Beitashour (right) were drawn back to the corners outside centerbacks Chris Mavinga and Drew Moor. The outside backs subdued Meram, who like Higuain and Kamara most glaringly showed the effects of more than two weeks without competitive play. More attacking urgency in the second half forced TFC deeper into its own half but the Supporters’ Shield winner escaped to post its first shutout in three playoff games. A Meram header off the crossbar in the 86th minute was the closest Crew SC came to scoring.
Victor Vazquez fronted a five-man TFC midfield that only sporadically provided any support for striker Toisant Ricketts. Crew SC’s attack wasn’t much better in the first half though it did manage the only shot on goal.
The teams mostly cancelled each other out in the first half though they combined for 10 shots. Only a Pedro Santos effort required a simple catch by TFC keeper Alex Bono. Ricketts and Kamara headed crosses well wide of the posts in a tepid first half.
2. Crew set plays produce nothing.
A VAR controversy kicked off a much livelier second period. Bono came out to confront Santos on a through ball and as the Crew SC attacker touched the ball away from Bono the keeper’s slide made slight contact, and Santos went to the ground. Kamara’s follow-up shot was blocked out for a corner by Moor, and when referee Robert Sibiga pointed to the flag, Santos’ appeals for Sibiga to use video review earned him a yellow card.
Sibiga did not use the video-review system in this situation nor at any time during a match that produced a few clumsy tackles but no outbursts or skirmishes, though the head coaches barked at each other in the final minutes.
Increased Crew SC pressure and some shaky TFC giveaways generated a few opportunities as the second half unfolded. A couple of Columbus set plays produced little; on one free kick, Santos shot straight into the wall and Higuain fired way over from more than 30 yards out. In the 73rd minute, midfielder Artur dribbled 40 yards through the right channel and fired a rising shot from about 25 yards that narrowly missed the top corner.
Crew SC substitute Kekuta Manneh got off a shot seconds after entry when TFC fell asleep on a throw-in and it drifted wide of the near post. Minutes later, a terrible clearance by Moor presented Harrison Afful with a point-blank chance that Bono batted away, and Raheem Edwards jumped in front of Manneh’s follow-up shot. Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter did not bring on any subs other than Manneh and Crew SC finished the match with 14 shots (three on goal).
3. Columbus loses Artur for the second leg.
TFC didn’t manage any shots on goal and struggled to contain the speed of Afful and Manneh, which gives Crew SC fans some hope their team can use the away-goals tiebreaker at BMO Field. But a yellow card issued to Artur – another player whose pace found space in the TFC defensive third – rules him out for the second leg, for which TFC will be strengthened by the returns of Giovinco and Altidore.
To prevail north of the border, Crew SC needs Higuain, Kamara, and Meram to shake out the cobwebs that plagued them at MAPFRE while also dealing with the league's highest-scoring team (74 goals in the regular season) that should be at full strength.
Nov. 21 in Columbus, Ohio
Columbus 0 Toronto FC 0.
Columbus – Steffen: Raitala, Williams, Mensah, Afful, Trapp, Artur, Meram, Santos (Manneh, 79), Higuain, Kamara.
Toronto FC – Bono; Beitashour, Moor, Mavinga, Morrow (Edwards, 84), Bradley, Delgado (Zavaleta, 70), Osorio, Hasler (Cooper, 81), Vazquez, Ricketts.
Referee: Robert Sibiga.