There are few guarantees in soccer, but one thing is for sure: Wednesday’s Eastern Conference final decide will be more engaging than the opening leg between the Columbus Crew and Toronto FC. It’s a winner-take-all 90 minute battle with the right to host MLS Cup on the line.
Without Seabstian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore available, TFC was able to secure a 0-0 draw in Columbus in the opening leg in a match highlighted by few chances and fewer reasons to get excited. Now, the duo are back, and TFC knows a win at home is all it will take to win the series.
For the Crew, though, a score draw would send them through to MLS Cup, continuing an unlikely playoff run in the face of relocation rumors and general unrest. To get there, though, they’ll need to take down one of the best teams in MLS history.
Here’s a closer look at Wednesday’s match:
The first leg was a largely tepid affair with neither team providing much on the attacking end. While TFC forward Tosaint Ricketts was starved of service, the Crew generated few chances of their own in a match that’s action did not match its atmosphere.
Players to Watch
TORONTO FC: SEBASTIAN GIOVINCO
Is there any doubt? With Giovinco out of the lineup, TFC struggled to create in the attacking end. At the end of the day, Giovinco is more than just a scorer. He’s a creator, a decoy, a leader and a finisher all in one.
The Crew’s defense has proven error-prone, even if the backline was rock solid against Ricketts last time out. This time, they’ll need to be even more diligent with Giovinco lurking. You can’t foul him either, because one Giovinco free kick is all it takes to change a series. Just ask the Red Bulls.
CREW: FEDERICO HIGUAIN
All these years later, Higuain still remains the Crew’s most important player. His role may change slightly as the years go on, but Higuain will need to be big on Wednesday if the Crew hope to win away from home.
With TFC likely to be more attacking at BMO Field, there will be times where Higuain will be tasked with some defensive work. He’ll need to keep an eye on Michael Bradley and work hard without the ball but, when the Crew do get a chance at possession, Higuain will need to be decisive and efficient in creating chances for his team’s talented attack.
Matchup to Watch
MOHAMED ABU vs. VICTOR VAZQUEZ
With Artur suspended due to yellow card accumulation, the Crew turn to Mohamed Abu to join Wil Trapp in a defensive midfield role.
Abu started in place of Artur in the second leg against NYCFC, and the Crew midfield was promptly outplayed while the defense held on for dear life. Defensively, there’s a noticeable drop off between Abu and Artur, even if Abu is probably a comparable passer to his Brazilian counterpart.
Victor Vasquez requires every ounce of a midfielder’s defensive skill, as the Spaniard takes full advantage of space to create for Giovinco and Altidore. If Vasquez finds that space, the Crew defense is in for a long night, and it’s up to Abu to prevent that by staying disciplined and smart against a premier playmaker.
TFC: JUSTIN MORROW
Morrow has almost certainly been the best fullback/wingback in MLS this season, and his ability to get forward will be vital to TFC on Wednesday night.
In the opening leg, TFC was largely pinned back, and part of that was by design. But, if Morrow can get forward in Toronto and create mismatches out wide, space suddenly opens up for Altidore, Giovinco and Vasquez. That space will be key against a Crew team that has shown plenty of individual errors defensively throughout the regular season.
CREW: PEDRO SANTOS
The Portuguese winger wasn’t quite at his best in the opening leg, but he remains one of the team’s best chances at creating a magical moment.
Santos brings speed and technical ability to the Crew attack and that will be vital to any counterattacking sequence. His job is to pin the fullbacks deep and keep them honest with direct, efficient runs. He may not get the goal, but Santos’ ability to threaten the TFC backline will be key in keeping the Crew from being overwhelmed.
Wednesday’s match is all about dictating, as most matches are. TFC will want the game played on their teams and the Crew will want it on theirs. That’s not a surprise.
For TFC, it’s about overloading. If TFC can keep the wingbacks high, it creates mismatches, and mismatches lead to goals. They’ll have to be attentive when it comes to counterattacks, but TFC will probably make that trade off in an effort to overload the Crew backline. With Artur out, the Crew could struggle a bit when it comes to defending through the midfield, leaving the defense extra exposed.
On the other end, the Crew will need to pin those wingbacks deep in their own end, and they do that by creating havoc with Pedro Santos and Justin Meram. The two will need to use their pace effectively on Wednesday. They don’t necessarily need to score the goal because Ola Kamara and Federico Higuain will be doing work down the middle. However, Santos and Meram need to make it look like they can score a goal. The alternative? TFC pushes high and the Crew are swarmed.
It’s hard to not favor TFC in Wednesday’s scenario, even if the Supporters’ Shield winners have had a bad case of the sleepwalk for several months. Win at home and TFC is on to MLS Cup, a scenario pretty much anyone on the team would have asked for. However, one Crew road goal suddenly throws things into disarray, and the Crew are certainly potent enough to provide one.