TFC earns hard-fought clean sheet in first-leg draw with Crew

James Sharman reports from Columbus where Toronto FC played to a draw with the Crew in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship.

Toronto FC 0, Columbus Crew 0
• TFC earn road draw without suspended Giovinco and Altidore
• All to play for in return match on Nov. 29 at BMO Field

COLUMBUS, OHIO – “We’ve got to leave Columbus with something.”

That was the bold challenge issued by Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley to his teammates earlier this week ahead of Tuesday night’s Eastern Conference final first leg.

Bradley received his wish in the form of a hard-fought clean sheet, as TFC battled the Columbus Crew to a 0-0 draw in the opener of this two-legged, aggregate playoff series.

Toronto struggled to create anything in the final third of the pitch and didn’t register a single shot on target, which was hardly a surprise considering they were minus its top-two scorers in Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, with both star forwards serving one-game suspensions.

Overall, TFC was more workmanlike than inventive on the night, seeing things out and repelling the Crew, rather than dictating matters like it normally does against opponents.

But this game wasn’t about putting on a show or trying to earn style points by playing entertaining soccer. It was about the Reds getting something positive from a difficult situation. It was about them not conceding a goal. And it was about TFC being in a comfortable position going home for the return leg on Nov. 29 at BMO Field.

Bradley perfectly summed up TFC’s performance, calling it a “professional” display.

“One of the team’s stated goals was to walk away from here with something. Whether it was a win, a tie, some away goals – we needed to leave here with the opportunity to finish things off at [home] next week. We did that,” Bradley said.

He later added: “Nobody is celebrating anything tonight in here, that’s for sure. … We handled things in a good way, in a solid professional way.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono.

“We really grinded it out today. That’s what you have to do in the playoffs sometimes,” Bono offered.

Coach Greg Vanney deviated from his preferred 3-5-2 formation and went with a more fluid 4-1-4-1 setup, with Bradley serving as a sweeper, Canadian forward Tosaint Ricketts starting up, and Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez given licence to freely roam. Justin Morrow dropped back from his normal wingback position into a four-man defence alongside Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour.

At times, Ricketts looked isolated up front.

“I think the guys were having a tough time finding Tosaint, both in transition and sometimes in possession. I think he was drifting, sometimes, to the back post a little bit too early so we were having a real hard time connecting with him,” Vanney admitted.

Bradley did an exquisite job of protecting the back four, breaking up attacking plays by the Crew and launching Toronto’s transitions with his precise passing from out of the back.

“I thought [Bradley] did a good job of manipulating our guys defensively, and controlling the pace for us with the ball, which is what we wanted. We wanted to come in here and have our fair share of possession so that we weren’t in a defensive posture,” Vanney stated.

The Reds enjoyed slightly more possession than the Crew, but it was a fairly even opening half, with neither team threatening to score.

The Crew nearly opened the scoring early in the second half. Federico Higuain made a darting run through midfield and played a defence-splitting pass for Pedro Santos. The Portuguese appeared to collide with Bono, but teammate Ola Kamara stayed with the play and fired a shot on net. Moor scrambled back to make a goal-line clearance, robbing Columbus of a sure goal.

Santos gave Toronto some fits down the right side with his pace and deft touch, and sometimes Beitashour managed to get the better of him in one of the more intriguing, one-on-one battles of the evening.

Bono came up big late in regulation time, making a point-blank stop on Columbus’ Harrison Afful after TFC defenders failed to clear their lines as the Crew swarmed their penalty area. A rebound attempt from Kekuta Manneh was blocked by substitute Eriq Zavaleta, preserving the valuable road draw for Toronto.

“We tried to get a clearance out and it dribbled right to [Awful], and he was able to take a touch and that point you’re just hoping that [his shot] is somewhere around you and you can have a reaction,” Bono said.

“Moments like those are going to come in matches. I thought as a whole we defended really well. They didn’t have any solid opportunities other than that.”

The good news for Toronto is that Altidore and Giovinco are eligible to play in the second leg after serving their one-game suspensions.

“I think we’re an entirely different team with them on the field,” Vanney said “I think our ability to connect off the front line, our ability to have more play makers, goal scorers, difference makers, they add something entirely different.”

Tuesday’s game was played across an emotionally charged setting before an announced sellout crowd of 21,289 spectators. Anthony Precourt, who has owned the Columbus Crew since 2013, has threatened to move the team to Austin, Texas after the 2018 MLS season unless a new downtown stadium is built for his club. One of the 10 original MLS teams, Columbus has played at MAPFRE Stadium since 1999.

Fans have rallied behind the franchise in recent weeks, launching a social media campaign with the hashtag “#SaveTheCrew” to try keep the club in Columbus. Full-throated supporters let their feelings be known during Tuesday’s contest, chanting “Save the Crew” and “F–k Precourt.”

NOTES: This Eastern Conference final marks the first playoff encounter between TFC and the Crew… Should Toronto beat Columbus in this aggregate series, it would host the MLS Cup final at BMO Field on Dec. 9. The Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo are facing off in the Western Conference final.

Toronto FC supporters get an inside look into their favourite club every Monday night at 11 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. It’s an all-access pass with co-hosts Brendan Dunlop and Thomas Michalakos as they interview the biggest names around the team and preview and review of every TFC match.

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