Down its star strike force, Toronto FC looks to leave Columbus with something
Toronto FC's Michael Bradley (4) sets up his scoring kick between New England Revolution's Teal Bunbury (10) and Scott Caldwell (6) during the second half of an MLS soccer game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, May 16, 2015. (AP Photo / Michael Dwyer)
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, November 19, 2017 3:17PM EST
Toronto FC's mission in Columbus this week is simple. Come home with something from the first leg of the Eastern Conference final.
The league leaders will have to do it without suspended strikers Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, making Tuesday's Game 1 at Mapfre Stadium an even more intriguing matchup.
"If we can win, great," Toronto captain Michael Bradley said after a crisp/chilly training session Sunday. "If you get to the end of the game and we're in a position to take a tie, then we'll take that. We want to go and score goals because obviously away goals are important.
"So we're going for it. We're going to be aggressive. We want to put the game on our terms and that's regardless of who we have available ... We've got to leave Columbus with something."
Altidore and Giovinco will both be back for the second leg at BMO Field on Nov. 29.
Fifth-seeded Columbus finished 15 points below Toronto but closed out the regular season on a 10-game unbeaten run. Two playoff wins followed before the Crew dropped a 2-0 decision en route to a 4-3 aggregate win over New York City FC in the conference semifinal.
That loss was the first for Columbus since Aug. 5.
Bradley says the long layoff since Toronto's conference semifinal victory over the Red Bulls means that his team is well prepared.
"We have a really good understanding of who they are, what makes them good, what they want to do and how we can ultimately use all those things and tilt the bar in our favour."
One of Toronto's strengths, according to Bradley, is the way it can adapt its tactics as needed.
Only elite teams like Barcelona and Manchester City can play the same way day in and day out "and have it lead to success," he said.
"But by and large for the rest, you have to find different ways to be able to give yourself the best chance to win."
Toronto made life difficult for itself in last year's conference final, losing the first leg in Montreal 3-2 before rallying for a wild 5-2 win at BMO Field. TFC was seeded third while the Impact were fifth.
Bradley says that kind of playoff experience has toughened the team.
"You don't know what the toughest days are like if you've not lived them," he said. "And we have a group that has lived a lot of those days together."
Since the conference championships have been decided by aggregate goals over two legs (since 2012), only two other higher seeds have won and advanced to the MLS championship game.
Second-ranked New England eliminated the fourth-ranked New York Red Bulls 4-3 on aggregate in 2014 while second-ranked Sporting Kansas City ousted No. 4 Houston 2-1 on aggregate in 2013.
The higher seed in the Western Conference final has never advanced. Seattle was seeded fourth last year when it beat No. 2 Colorado 3-1 on aggregate.
"There's so much talk about the playoff format and how the higher-seeded teams get enough of an advantage," said Bradley. "In many case the higher team don't do enough in the first (away) game to then come back still having an advantage and that's on you."
Toronto did just enough in the conference semifinal, advancing on the away goals rule when its series with the Red Bulls ended tied 2-2 after a 1-0 loss at BMO Field on Nov. 5. It was one of only two home defeats this season.
Canadian international Tosaint Ricketts will lead the attack Tuesday in the absence of Altidore and Giovinco, likely with Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez behind him. Ricketts, the fastest player on the Toronto roster, had seven goals in 1,003 minutes of playing time this season.
While Columbus has played with three in the back, its more usual formation is 4-2-3-1 with Federico Higuain pulling the strings in midfield and Ola Kamara up front. Justin Meram is also an offensive threat.
"I think the series and each game will have variations as its goes," said Toronto coach Greg Vanney, who enjoys the cut and trust of strategic sparring. "Just because (Columbus coach) Gregg (Berhalter) is clever with his tactics and how he rotates guys into different spaces. So I think there will be little twists along the way."
Toronto won two of the three meetings -- 2-1 away and 5-0 at home -- with Columbus this season. Columbus prevailed 2-1 at home in the other game.