First legs can usually be described as drab affairs. More often than not, opening legs feature two teams afraid to make a mistake and throw away an entire series with one costly moment.
“Drab” is one way to describe Tuesday’s clash between Toronto FC and the Columbus Crew. However, TFC would probably describe the 0-0 draw as something entirely different. Sometimes, drab also means effective.
“It’s good. 0-0 is not a perfect result,” said head coach Greg Vanney. “We’d like to get a road goal, but, at the end of the day, we have to go back to Toronto and win the game. We will go home in front of our fans in our stadium and play to win the game.”
“One of the team’s stated goals was to walk away with something, whether that was a win, a tie, an away goal,” added Michael Bradley. “We needed to leave here with the opportunity to finish things off at BMO next week and we did that.”
The road to that draw certainly wasn’t pretty. Vanney says the key was to find ways to be somewhat aggressive while also dealing with the Crew’s numbers throughout the field. TFC was looking to play defensive, but sitting in too deep against a talented Crew attack would invite unneeded pressure.
Instead, TFC was content to be smart in possession when they did get the ball. The key was to maintain possession to keep the Crew honest, forcing the hosts to keep some sort of numbers back due to TFC’s ability to spring on the counter. Largely, TFC was looking to control pace and manipulate numbers in their favor, even if they weren’t able to create a bulk of the chances or possession.
By and large, they were able to do that. Save for a few quick Crew counters, TFC was largely unthreatened. There was a penalty shout from Pedro Santos, a long-range effort from Artur and a wonderful close-range save from Alex Bono, but that was pretty much all the Crew could muster at a raucous MAPFRE Stadium.
On the other end, TFC struggled to truly find attacking form without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore in the lineup. With them, Vanney says TFC is an entirely different team, but the team that took the field on Tuesday struggled to integrate forward Tossaint Ricketts and produce meaningful chances.
“I thought there would be more possibilities,” Vanney said. “I think the guys had a tough time finding Tossaint sometimes in possession and in transition. We were having a hard time connecting with it. We were setting up the final act sometimes when we still needed to set up play. Sometimes in transitions, we had some moments where we needed to commit to going and maybe could have played him in.
“I thought there would be a little bit more, but it is what it is on the day.”
Vanney pointed to Bradley as one of the key cogs in Tuesday’s performance. It wasn’t a flashy effort by any means but Bradley served as a key link for TFC. Without Altidore and Giovinco involved, TFC needed to be organized defensively and positionally sound. Bradley helped them accomplish that while also leading the way in the midfield battle, despite frequent booing from the MAPFRE Stadium crowd.
“If you put yourself in their shoes for a second, they probably feel like they needed to go after things, to come away with something,” Bradley said. “Playing at home, still playing a team that is playing without two of their biggest attacking threats, and so at that point you expect that they’re going to push. We couldn’t in a few moments quite find the right pass, the right move to get behind them, to put them on their heels.
“They tried to crank things up a little bit. It didn’t lead to much in terms of clean chances. I think we handled things in a good way.”
Now, TFC has it all to play for when they return home. A win at BMO Field sends TFC to a second consecutive MLS Cup final appearance. It’s that simple.
The first leg may have been ugly. It may have been boring and it may have been frustrating for pretty much all involved. But, at the end of the day, it moved TFC one step closer to an MLS Cup final and, for now, that’s all that matters.
“We’ve come a long way in terms of the improvement of our team, the mentality,” said Bradley. “Nobody’s celebrating anything tonight, that’s for sure. We handled things in a solid, professional way. We wanted to win the game.
“Having said that, 0-0 is a result that still means we go back home next week and we’ve got 90 minutes to win a game and get ourselves back in the final. The atmosphere next week will be incredible. We’ll use that to help us in the best way and we’re going to be ready to go for it.”