By DAN KARELL
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Toronto FC proved on Saturday that this season will be different from the previous seven iterations.
Playing without four starters including Designated Player Jermain Defoe and captain Steven Caldwell, TFC stayed disciplined tactically and made the most of their chances, defeating the Columbus Crew on the road, 2-0. It’s only TFC’s second win at Crew Stadium and third win against the Crew in club history.
For the Crew, it was their first defeat of the season.
“I thought the guys did a great job especially playing such a good team away from home,” TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen said following the match. “It’s extremely hard to win away from home in this league and we had a quite a few injuries and quite a few guys who hadn’t even played pre-season let alone league minutes. It was just a very hardened professional away performance.”
Toronto did their best to frustrate the Crew throughout the match, clogging up the middle of the field and forcing the Crew to constantly try and send crosses from both sides. TFC rookie Nick Hagglund and English veteran Bradley Orr made their season debuts together in central defense and were very impressive in defending the Crew attacks.
While TFC continued to defend solidly, they moved forward quickly on the counter-attack. Dwayne De Rosario, starting up top in place of the injured Defoe, had a chance in the sixth minute that was saved from close range by Clark and played a big role up top along with Designated Player Gilberto.
The Crew were made to pay for a poor start when the in-form Bradley appeared at the edge of the box in the 11th minutes. The U.S. Men’s National Team star dashed into the box and after being fed a pass from TFC right back Mark Bloom, Bradley spun towards goal and fired through the legs of Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark to give TFC the lead.
“Mark (Bloom) slipped me a great little ball and at first you’re just trying to make sure you get there before it goes out of bounds and I was able to get there,” Bradley said. “You’re sizing things up and thinking ‘if I can nail this one low and hard, it’s got a chance.’
“You’re trying to size up the angle and hit one across low and hard on the ground that puts the keeper on an uncomfortable position.”
The Crew began to regain some momentum late in the half, earning three corner kicks in a row. However, all three corners came to nothing with TFC goalkeeper Julio Cesar saving one corner and watching another one go through the box without touching anyone.
The second half began with more pressure from the Crew but TFC’s two blocks of four stayed organized and compact. Kyle Bekker, playing in midfield in place of Jonathan Osorio, put together a strong performance in his first start of the season in central midfield alongside Bradley. Bekker sat in the passing lanes and made five interceptions to go with 11 recoveries.
“We knew the strengths of Columbus and we knew some of their weaknesses,” Nelsen said. “We knew if we were patient that we would get a couple clear chances but we had to be disciplined because they are a very good team. We have our own tactics and we know what we think we know that can give these guys the best opportunities to win games and sometimes it works and sometimes we get it completely wrong, especially in this league because it’s so hard to win away from home in this league.”
Despite TFC’s compactness, the Crew were able to pass their way through the TFC defense and have more crosses in on goal. However, even a chance in formation did them no favors.
Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter brought on both Jairo Arrieta and Ethan Finlay in the second half in an attempt to add more target men to the Crew’s crosses, but neither could get on the end of the passes. Too often the crosses found their way to a space with more TFC players than Crew players, or a spot with no one in yellow at all.
As the Crew kept pushing forward late in second half, TFC added their second goal of the match when substitute Issey Nakajima-Ferran poked home at the near post in the 85th minute.
“I didn’t think twice really,” Nakajima-Ferran said. “I saw Justin (Morrow) going down the line and I just took my chance and just kinda sprinted for the near post and luckily the ball was delivered fantastically from Justin and I just got my toe to it and secured three points.”
In the final minute of stoppage time, Finlay nearly scored on a brilliant individual effort Cesar got a finger to Finlay’s close-range and deflected it off the crossbar.
Despite finishing the match with nearly 62 percent of the possession, Berhalter said the loss came down to a poor opening half.
“We had a horrendous start to the game,” Berhalter said. “It was sloppy in every sense of the word. Our defending, our ball possession, our ball movement, our aggressiveness in our movements, and we paid for it. I think they capitalized on a great individual effort by Michael Bradley and then we’re chasing the game.”
Check out video highlights of the match below: