Shorthanded Toronto's depth will be tested by Columbus' methodical style
After Supporters' Shield-winning Toronto FC saw off the New York Red Bulls, and Columbus Crew SC rode a commanding first-leg win over New York City FC, the Eastern Conference final is set. Graham Parker assesses how Toronto and Columbus match up (first leg Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN).
Columbus Crew SC
Columbus has shown already in these playoffs that it will play the game and not the occasion. Even as an existential storyline about the team's very future hangs over the organization, the Crew have not deviated from their particular brand of neat cerebral soccer that always likes the odds of its opponent blinking first.
Against Atlanta the team silenced the crowd early and refused to be swept away, while NYCFC were punished at three key stages of their series: after the Alexander Callens red card, after NYCFC had clawed back to 3-1 and in the second leg and when the New York side was within a goal of advancing. At each point Greg Berhalter's team made its move efficiently and effectively to ease out of trouble.
Crew SC is balanced all over the field yet not truly exceptional in any area. Observers of the past two MLS Cup winners might point out that that's no bad blueprint, but both Portland and Seattle had strong defensive organizational instinct to build on through their successful playoff runs, even if in Seattle's case injuries forced such pragmatism on them.
Columbus, for all Zack Steffen's heroics and magical good fortune, can be scored against. And if it gets drawn into an open end-to-end game, Toronto may be the more efficient converter of chances, especially at BMO Field, where surely the Reds can't be as bad again as they were against the Red Bulls.
Why they will win
The series is set up as ideally as it could possibly be for the Crew -- apart from the whole imminently-ceasing-to-exist thing, that is. Toronto is coming off a chastening home loss against the Red Bulls that saw them drawn into a costly physical battle and picking up key suspensions. Crew SC is unlikely to deviate too far from its principles by trying to draw Toronto into a similar scrap, in this first leg at least, but it does have a chance to set the tone and balance for this series with a well-handled game on Tuesday night. Berhalter is one of the most under-celebrated tactical coaches in the league, and he'll be keen to get Toronto second-guessing from the start.
Do we add or subtract "strength of character" after what happened in the team's last game? Toronto was bullied off its game against New York, and endured a rare home playoff loss that cost it Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore for this Eastern Conference final first leg, as just the standout hothead consequences from the end of that series.
But Toronto prevailed, just as it did when winning a series from 3-0 down against Montreal last year. The team that swept all before it this year may not be at full strength for the first leg in Columbus, but as well as possessing strength of character, this is also a roster built around strength in depth, and this will be a game to showcase it. The remaining marquee players will still be important, with Michael Bradley needing to pick his moments in controlling the midfield and Victor Vazquez bringing the creative spark and drive that's missing without Giovinco.
You can't take Giovinco and Altidore out of Toronto's lineup without damaging the team. The Reds are built around the pair as key components and Toronto's ability to stretch opponents is significantly curtailed without their twin threat.
And that last game was such an odd emotional test that you do wonder if there's any mental hangover Toronto could bring into this series; if the team is at all cautious in the opening stages and Crew SC manages to pin its wing backs back in its own half, the potential exists for Toronto to second-guess itself out of this series.
And for all the team's regular-season dominance, it did not come into the playoffs on the same streak of formidable form as Columbus did. And while its late-season stumbles in trying to close out the Shield win were understandable, they were understandable because the team was without Giovinco and Altidore.
Why they will win
Toronto is still the best team in MLS, still the deepest team in MLS. On its day, it should beat any opponent in the league. A conference final with another home MLS Cup appearance on the line seems as good a time as any to have a day.
Vazquez has been great all year, the key factor in tipping Toronto from a top team capable of going on a run last year, into an utterly dominant team this year. How he holds Toronto together going forward is going to be key in the first leg, as will be the confidence of the wing-backs in taking the play to Columbus at the right moments.
Toronto can even benefit from the sense of expectation that it is vulnerable right now. The onus on the Crew is to take the game to Toronto while it is without key players, so the Reds may enjoy space on the counterattack if they decide to absorb pressure and choose their moments.
And finally, part of the reason the Red Bulls game stood out was because it was such an aberration; Toronto's concentration on its ultimate goal was the defining characteristic of its campaign. The team wanted the Supporters' Shield for home-field advantage right through to the final and the goalscoring and points records that accrued along the way were almost incidental to that single-minded goal. Toronto has had its scare. Surely it won't get distracted again.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.