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Crew misses chance as short-handed Toronto gets the job done in Columbus

Despite a late rally by Columbus, an opening goal eluded both sides, and they head back to Toronto for a decisive second leg.
Julie Stewart-Binks catches up with Michael Bradley after Toronto FC managed a scoreless first leg at Columbus.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Columbus Crew SC and Toronto FC played to a scoreless tie in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night.

Both teams struggled to create much in the way of opportunities, though Toronto keeper Alex Bono made a critical save off of Harrison Afful late in the match to keep the score 0-0.

Here are three thoughts on a typically cagey first leg.

1. In new formation, Toronto gets the job done

With 16 days between matches, there was plenty of time not only for players to heal but also for managers to come up with some tactical tweaks. With the Toronto duo of Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco suspended, it was TFC head coach Greg Vanney who came up with the biggest wrinkle, junking the 3-5-2 that his side played in for the vast majority of the season and going with a 4-1-4-1 instead.

Given how defensively sound TFC have been during this campaign, it can be debated if the result was purely the result of the tactical change, but the fact remains that TFC looked solid for much of the night -- save for a few anxious moments late -- in the alignment.

Columbus Crew SCColumbus Crew SC
Toronto FCToronto FC
0
0
FT
Leg 1
Game Details

In attack, Toronto was content to pick its spots, usually in transition, though none of those really created much danger. But the visitors succeeded in their primary mission, which was to stifle the Crew's attack, especially out wide. The first half witnessed one instance of clever interchange between winger Pedro Santos and right-back Afful, but Michael Bradley -- who once again was booed whenever he touched the ball -- was there to eventually break up the play. The Crew managed to put a few crosses into the box, but those were easily dealt with by the central tandem of Chris Mavinga and Drew Moor.

With the flanks shut down, Toronto was nearly undone by some central attacking play in the 51st minute. Federico Higuain's clever through ball to Santos in on goal. The Crew winger tried to maneuver around Bono, only for the ball to fall to Ola Kamara, whose shot was cleared off the line by Moor.

Vanney later reverted to type with about 20 minutes remaining, switching to a three-back system with the insertion of central defender Eriq Zavaleta. Perhaps he should have stayed put, as TFC looked wobbly toward the end.

Ultimately, Toronto heads back home with a satisfactory result.

2. Missed opportunity for Crew

Tuesday's match was possibly the last of the season at MAPFRE Stadium. Given the continued angst the Crew faithful are feeling about the team's possible move to Austin, Texas, passions were running high, especially given the pictures on social media of long lines to get into the stadium.

Once inside, the sellout crowd of 21,289 made itself heard with chants of "Save the Crew!" Yet it wasn't enough to push the home side on to a victory.

Justin Meram battles three defenders during Columbus' MLS playoff against Toronto.
With Toronto FC short-handed, Justin Meram and the Columbus Crew were unable to take advantage.

Columbus by no means played poorly on the night. It applied its share of pressure and created the better chances but simply ran into an organized Toronto defense. As a result, it wasn't quite sharp enough to find a breakthrough. In addition to the heroic defending by Moor, Artur's 73rd-minute drive was just inches wide of the post, as was an 81st-minute effort from substitute Kekuta Manneh. Bono's aforementioned save was the last good chance the home side created.

A 0-0 draw isn't the worst result for Columbus, in that it didn't concede. But Tuesday's match found Toronto in about as weakened a state as one will find, given the absences of Altidore and Giovinco. With both players expected back for the second leg on Nov. 29, Columbus will likely rue its inability to get its collective nose in front in leg one.

3. Will Toronto learn its lesson?

The Eastern Conference semifinal series between Toronto and the New York Red Bulls saw TFC do the hard work on the road but nearly squander its advantage with a spate of brain-dead yellow cards and overall poor play.

Has Toronto learned its lesson? There's every reason to think that it has. Tuesday's performance was heavy on composure and discipline, despite the late struggles. In fact, it was the Crew who had problems with yellow cards, with Artur's 33rd-minute caution rendering him unavailable for the second leg.

The even nature of the series heading back to BMO Field should insure that no complacency creeps into Toronto's game. Then there is the difference in personality between the Crew and the Red Bulls. Sure, the first leg got a little chippy at times, with both teams more than willing to thwart counterattacking opportunities through tactical fouling. But Columbus is a team that will try to play, and it lacks an agitator extraordinaire such as the Red Bulls' Felipe.

Although it's true that playoff games at BMO Field tend to have their share of memorable incidents, Tuesday's result means Toronto remains on course for a Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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