• Columbus Crew 2 (Higuain 44’, Zardes 46’), Toronto FC 0
• TFC lose season opener 84 days after MLS Cup win
• Reds’ Vazquez left game with injury in 2nd half
TORONTO – The Columbus Crew sure know how to ruin a party.
Toronto FC played its MLS regular-season opener at home for the first time in franchise history on Saturday afternoon, a scant 84 days after its greatest triumph over the Seattle Sounders in the 2017 MLS Cup final.
Even though a massive banner on the pitch was unfurled and a message flashed on the scoreboard that both read “Last season is history,” the club took one last chance to celebrate its historic 2017 campaign prior to kickoff.
A special pre-game ceremony was held where 10 flags were raised in the north end of the stadium, representing each trophy won by TFC since entering MLS in 2007: six Canadian club championships, two Eastern Conference titles, one MLS Cup and one Supporters’ Shield. Also, all three trophies TFC won last season were presented as team dignitaries and MLS commissioner Don Garber looked on.
Columbus, no doubt, felt somewhat jilted amidst the love-in at BMO Field, but then it exacted the perfect revenge in the form of a 2-0 win. While Columbus made the most of its scoring chances on the day, Toronto was wasteful in front of goal, and three of its shots hit the post or crossbar.
Toronto’s star forward Sebastian Giovinco clearly wasn’t impressed by the extracurricular festivities, and called out his team’s mentality on the day.
“At the beginning, it was not in a good way; we continued to show the trophy, we continued to think [about] what happened last year. I think, for me, this is no good,” Giovinco told reporters after the game.
He later added: “I think we have to change the mentality. We don’t have to think about last year – we have to think about this year, and this year is more difficult.”
Captain Michael Bradley offered a different view, stating, “Mentally, we’re in a good way.” The main issue on the day for Bradley was that Toronto “gave away bad goals at bad times.”
“We couldn’t do it today. There’s no place else to look other than at ourselves. We understand we have to be better, we have to continue to get better, get sharper, and grow into the season in a big way, [because] this is what a lot of days are going to be like,” Bradley offered.
Dutch fullback Gregory van der Wiel, who signed with the club last month, started in his TFC debut on Saturday. Spanish playmaker Ager Aketxe, another newcomer, also earned his first start for Toronto. Coach Greg Vanney made two other changes to his defence from Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League match, drafting in Chris Mavinga and Eriq Zavaleta for Drew Moor and Nick Hagglund.
Toronto found it difficult to deal with Columbus’ pressing game, and to find its ways through the visitors’ high defensive line at first. It was the Crew who nearly opened the scoring when Cristian Martinez was played in on goal and unleashed a shot that kissed the outside of the far post. The Reds grew into the game as time wore on, with fullbacks Justin Morrow and van der Wiel making penetrating runs down their respective flanks, and Jonathan Osorio driving the attack through the middle.
“In the first half, it was tough for us to get balls behind their back line from the position that they were pressing us. … If you can’t play in between [the opponent’s defenders] you have to go behind, and if you go behind enough they’ll back up and then you can open up spaces to play in between,” Vanney explained.
The home side looked to have control of matters before Columbus scored against the run of play just before halftime. Brazilian Artur delivered an inch-perfect cross deep into the box for Milton Valenzuela, who played a pass back into the middle for Gonzalo Higuain. Bradley was too slow in his recovery run to close down Higuain, and the Argentine lashed it into the back of the net with a beautiful volley.
The Crew caught TFC flat-footed and doubled their lead a minute into the second half. Pedro Santo delivered a killer ball into the box from deep in midfield that Mavinga couldn’t clear, and Gyasi Zardes slotted it past goalkeeper Alex Bono. Shortly after, Toronto’s Victor Vazquez was subbed off with an injury and was replaced by Auro.
Toronto kept its cool, turning the screw on Columbus, as Osorio forced goalkeeper Zach Steffan to make a save from in close, and Giovinco curled a shot from distance that clattered against the post. Auro collected the rebound, but squared the ball into the middle instead of shooting from a tight angle. The Crew escaped the sequence with its two-goal cushion intact.
The Reds hit the woodwork a third time when Aketxe blasted a shot from about 25 yards out that hit the crossbar. Moments later Jozy Altidore pushed his angled shot just wide of the far post after a gift of a giveaway by Columbus.
NOTES: Columbus leads the all-time series against Toronto with 14 wins and 10 draws in 32 games… The Crew had lost their previous three matches at BMO Field, including last season’s playoff meeting… TFC hosts Mexican club Tigres next Wednesday in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The return leg is March 13 in Mexico… The Reds have a bye next week in MLS, and then they’ll travel to Montreal to take on the Impact on March 17 in Week 3. Back-to-back home games against Real Salt Lake and D.C. United follow their trip to Montreal.