Columbus Crew SC host Supporters’ Shield winners Toronto FC on Tuesday night for Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Championship. With standing-room only tickets available, this will be the first time the teams have met in the Major League Soccer Cup Playoffs. The match is set to kickoff at 8 p.m. ET at MAPFRE Stadium.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Reds see red (& yellow)
The big news going into Tuesday’s match is Toronto FC will be without both of their star strikers. Despite an appeal attempt, Jozy Altidore will join Sebastian Giovinco on the sidelines. Giovinco will miss the first half of the Eastern Conference Championship due to yellow card accumulation whereas Altidore’s red was a result of a scuffle in the tunnel of BMO Field during halftime of Leg 2 of TFC’s Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the New York Red Bulls.
Altidore and Giovinco have combined for 31 goals and 12 assists in the regular season. Although this will be a tough blow for the Reds, they do have experience playing without the dynamic due. Altidore and Giovinco both missed three consecutive matches in September. Despite Toronto going 1-2-0 in that time, they did manage to find the back of the net without them; a 4-0 win against the LA Galaxy on September 16, a 5-3 loss against the Montreal Impact on September 20, and a 2-1 loss against the New England Revolution on September 23.
During the duo’s absence, Toronto’s Tosaint Ricketts took on Altidore’s role in all three matches whereas a different player filled in for Giovinco in all three matches (Jonathan Osorio against LA, Armando Cooper against Montreal, and Victor Vazquez against New England).
The Black & Gold will be relying on some seasoned veterans for their Championship series against TFC.
Crew SC’s midfielder, Federico Higuain, has played against Toronto 15 times (all starts) and has netted eight goals and added six assists. The Argentinean Designated Player is arguably one of the best in Crew SC’s history. He has notched 10 goals for Columbus this season.
Midfielder Justin Meram has played against Toronto 16 times (12 starts) and has snagged four goals with one assist. He has scored 14 goals for Columbus this season. He’s also known for scoring the fastest goal in MLS Cup playoff history –– nine seconds against the New York Red Bulls in 2015.
Another weapon the Black & Gold will be utilizing is Ex-TFC man, Josh Williams. The Columbus Defender played for the Reds in 2015 and 2016. Crew SC will look to Williams for helpful hints on marking certain players like Tosaint Ricketts for example.
“We’ve been picking his brain and getting some feedback on potential movements that they do or some of the psychology of the opponent,” Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter said.
The big break
The FIFA international break implanted more than two weeks of inaction into the postseason schedule — with both Columbus and Toronto sharing thoughts on the effects.
Striker Ola Kamara is back from making his first appearances for the Norwegian national team since 2014. His return to international play came last week in a pair of friendlies for Norway — a start and a substitute appearance in a pair of losses to Macedonia and Slovakia.
“It was fantastic to be back and see the guys and play with my national team again,” he said at Columbus training Friday. “It’s an unbelievable feeling ... I’m getting a lot of positive energy these days. From two big games going back to the national team with the opportunity to maybe play in an MLS [Cup] Final too, if you’re not happy and not positive now, you’re never going to be.”
Crew SC boss Gregg Berhalter said that while rest would have been ideal for Kamara before the Toronto clash, he was happy for the striker to get the chance he’s been looking for.
“It’s a good opportunity for him,” Berhalter said. “For him, it was a long time coming and it was great for him to be able to get back into the fold.”
On the other hand, Toronto superstar and Italian international Sebastian Giovinco just wants to play.
“It's too long, this is the principle point,” said Giovinco told MLSsoccer.com. “I don't like to have this break, I like to play, but this is the schedule for the next three weeks. This is what it is.”
Giovinco and Toronto FC have been off for 16 days between rounds of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. And Giovinco will have to wait longer than most of the side due to his suspension for Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Giovinco's playoffs last year were marred by cramping issues that limited his effectiveness and forced him off prematurely in the 2016 MLS Cup Final against the Seattle Sounders. Despite another injury keeping him out during portions of September and October, Giovinco believes he enters this year's competition in better shape.
The battle of the midfield will feature two of the League's most intense and effective captains: Toronto's Michael Bradley and Columbus' Wil Trapp.
Trapp — Columbus' youngest-ever captain at 24-years-old — remembers watching Bradley play central midfield in some of Europe's top leagues.
"He was someone who was playing overseas who you got to watch consistently,” Trapp told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s a great player. ... He’s certainly a guy off the field who does a great job of incorporating younger players and getting to know those guys."
Williams, having experience playing alongside both captains across the last three seasons, sees something more than an admiration and mutual respect between Trapp and Bradley.
“There’s a certain dedication and a certain fire in people’s eyes that you don’t see often,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “Michael, I think, is the ultimate in that. I’ve never been around someone else who gives 100 percent of themselves in everything they do, on and off the field. … That’s something that I notice with Wil. Just last night he called me to ask, ‘Hey, do you want to get out early and get extra touches in?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ That’s just him. That’s how you become a Michael Bradley – that next level. Doing stuff when no one else is watching, when no one else is looking.
“Wil is just a younger version (of Bradley),” he finished.