Preview: Burden of favorite is squarely on Toronto FC against Crew

The best team during the MLS regular season squares off with a beleaguered opponent to decide which of them will advance to the MLS Cup final as Eastern Conference representative as well as host.

Thus can be described the second leg of the Toronto FC-Columbus Crew SC series to be staged Wednesday (Fox Sports 1, 7:30 p.m. ET) at BMO Field, the same venue where TFC stumbled last year while losing the title game to Seattle on penalty kicks after the teams finished 120 minutes without a goal.

Atonement for that failure is not the only burden borne by TFC, which rolled to a regular-season record of 69 points as Supporters’ Shield winner yet scraped past the Red Bulls in the conference semifinals on away goals (2-1, 2-2 aggregate). Last week in the conference finals -- missing Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco (both suspended) -- it failed to put a shot on goal while limiting Crew SC to three attempts on frame (out of 14) in a 0-0 tie.

“You don't see me banging my head against my wall at home, sitting there, waiting to play,” said Altidore. He and Giovinco haven’t played a competitive match for more than three weeks. “Days go by, weeks … that's the format. With international breaks there is nothing you can do about it, so everybody has got to deal with it. It's frustrating, but you've got to keep yourself ready, focused on what we're playing for.”

Stepping stone. The return of two star attackers who scored a combined 31 goals plus the home-field advantage places the burden of favorite squarely upon TFC, which also notched 43 goals from other sources in the regular season, with Victor Vazquez and Justin Morrow notching eight apiece. Columbus, beset by turmoil of a proposed move to Texas, is a popular sentimental choice yet also a most capable one that advances with a victory or any tie involving goals, or possibly via penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie, as it did in Atlanta.

“I think that was huge for us,” said defender Josh Williams. “Obviously, it was the first step to getting here. To go in there and pull together like we did and go into extra time and still not give up a goal, I think that did a lot for the spirit of the team. It was just a stepping stone, a confidence builder for us. I think that kind of proved that we have something special here.”

After upsetting Atlanta, Columbus also survived a nervy 90 minutes in the second leg against New York City FC. Leading from the first leg, 4-1, Crew SC escaped Yankee Stadium with a 2-0 loss and 4-3 aggregate. Midfielder Artur, one of the four scorers against NYCFC, played another solid game in the first leg against TFC but also incurred a caution that suspends him for the rematch.

Responsibility on Trapp. The absence of Artur and TFC’s bolstered attack directs more responsibility to Wil Trapp, one of four anticipated starters who shares the sense of atonement – if a year removed – with the TFC players. Columbus lost the 2015 MLS Cup final at Crew Stadium to Portland, 2-1. A Kei Kamara goal in the 18th minute wasn’t enough to wipe out a pair of early, and controversial, Portland goals.

Since that game, another Kamara – Ola – has taken on the goalscoring role. He added 18 goals in 2017 to the 16 he scored the year before in his first MLS season. So far in the playoffs he has just one, and the team’s deep postseason run has been attained despite it being blanked three times in four games. Kamara has not generated a shot on goal in the last two.

Crew iron-man. Crew SC can expect a siege at BMO Field, where the busiest man might be Crew SC keeper Zack Steffen. He’s played every minute of every league and playoff match this season after getting zero minutes in 2016 as a midseason Discovery Player. TFC lit him up for five goals when the teams played at BMO back in May but he’s a major reason Crew SC’s only loss in its last 13 games is that defeat in Yankee Stadium.

Outsiders and observers can speculate about the team’s long-term future. The coaching staff and players are focused on those matters they can control: mindset, preparation, and performance.

 “The thing about long seasons is when you get to the end, you’re playing for something, so it’s very easy to get motivation,” said head coach Gregg Berhalter on Sunday after a training session. “Wednesday there’s a championship on the line with the potential to host the MLS Cup. So there’s so much on the line. These are the best days.”

1 comment about "Preview: Burden of favorite is squarely on Toronto FC against Crew".
  1. beautiful game, November 29, 2017 at 6:53 p.m.

    IMHO, there is no favorite to win the MLS Cup...the team that wants the final game needs to test the referee to the limit, keeping in mind what happened in the 2016 semi-final and final. By punishing the oppositions technical players, it is a tactical no-brainer. The track record of MLS officials swallowing the whistle is well known.

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