TORONTO – Can Toronto FC win without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore?
It’s an important question TFC will attempt to answer when they take on the Columbus Crew in the first leg of their Eastern Conference final series.
Both Giovinco and Altidore are suspended for Tuesday’s tilt in Ohio, which means the Reds will be without their top two goal scorers for this crucial playoff match. They’ll be eligible to return for the second leg on Nov. 29 at BMO Field.
Giovinco (16 goals) and Altidore (15) accounted for 41.9 per cent of TFC’s league-leading 74 goals this season. Together, they combined for nine game-winning goals (five from Altidore), so there’s no question that this is a big loss for Toronto ahead of its biggest match of the year.
That being said, TFC have been in this situation before, as they had to make do without both Altidore and Giovinco for four games during the regular season, including a 5-0 home win over Columbus and a 4-0 road victory vs. Los Angeles.
“Obviously, we’d all prefer to have Seba and Jozy. That’s clear. But we’ve played a lot of games without them this year. We’ve won a lot of games without them this year,” captain Michael Bradley said.
If Columbus expects Toronto to take a more conservative approach in this first leg of this aggregate series because it’ll be missing its top star scorers, then it’s sorely mistaken.
“Nothing changes. The idea is to go to Columbus and come away with something. If we can win, great. If you get to the end of the game and we’re in a position to take a tie, then we’ll take that,” Bradley explained.
“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.”
Toronto coach Greg Vanney has touted his team’s depth all season, and Tuesday’s game will be another test of his bench’s strength and quality.
Canadian Tosaint Ricketts is expected to start up front for the Reds in Columbus, but how exactly Toronto will line up remains a mystery. They could go with just one striker, or push Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez forward in a supporting role just behind Ricketts. Or they could leave Vazquez in midfield and slot Canadian Jonathan Osorio just behind Ricketts.
There are several personnel and tactical options that Toronto could pursue.
“In some ways, [the absence of Giovinco and Altidore] makes Columbus’ job of preparing for us in this game even harder, because I think while on one hand they’ll be excited that these guys aren’t going to play a part, we can do a lot of different things. We’ve got some variation, we can use a few different guys, we can play a few different ways,” Bradley offered.
Coach Vanney concurred: “We’ve used different options over the course of the year. It’s never been the same thing always. We do think that creates a bit of uncertainty [for Columbus].”
Ricketts only made nine starts during the 2017 campaign, but one of them came in that road win in L.A. on Sept. 16 when he scored a pair of goals. He also bagged a brace in the Reds’ very next game when both Altidore and Giovinco were again absent.
Ricketts has played and performed well in big games during his time in Toronto, scoring a pair of goals and tallying an assist during the club’s playoff run a year ago. He’s a different type of forward compared to Giovinco and Altidore, with his mobility, speed, acceleration and ability to put defenders on their heels among his best qualities.
The Canadian has made the most of limited playing time, as he ranked fifth in team scoring this season with seven goals in 22 appearances.
“He understands that there have been moments when Seba and Jozy are playing and playing well that opportunities are little bit limited. But he doesn’t let the faze him, and he’s determined that every time he gets a chance, he gives everything for the group and walks off the field with something to show for himself,” Bradley offered.
NOTES: Toronto topped the Eastern Conference and the overall MLS standings with a 20-5-9 record and a league-record 69 points. Columbus (16-12-6) finished fifth in the East, 15 points adrift of Toronto… The Crew did, however, hand TFC one of its five losses this season, earning a 2-1 home win on April 15. The Reds returned to Ohio the following month and beat the Crew 2-1, and then hammered Columbus 5-0 on May 26 in the final match of the campaign between the two sides… This Eastern Conference final marks the first playoff encounter between TFC and the Crew.