Toothless Toronto await Giovinco, Altidore in Eastern Conference final
Toronto FC will probably be the happier of the two teams following their goalless draw against Columbus Crew in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final.
They arrived in Columbus without prolific pair Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, and despite not registering a shot on goal in 90 minutes, the Reds will return home comfortable with the state of the series and their chances of hosting a second consecutive MLS Cup final.
Here are the lessons we learned from the goalless draw in Columbus and how they might impact the second leg next Wednesday.
Toronto has many gears
Without Giovinco and Altidore, Toronto FC turned to Tosaint Ricketts and a slightly adjusted setup in a first leg that was mostly about management. More important than getting goals on the road was stifling the Crew attack and setting up a return engagement when all their firepower will be available. Greg Vanney's team executed the game plan insofar as they kept Columbus quiet in a largely comfortable fashion by sitting deep and outmanning the Crew in crucial areas.
Until Harrison Afful's late chance that required Alex Bono to make a point-blank save, Toronto didn't have much to worry about. The Supporters' Shield winners looked composed throughout. A bit of good luck and the referee ignoring Pedro Santos' penalty claim early in the second half were all they needed to call the first-leg job done.
For the second leg in Toronto, the Reds will have to shift back into the more attacking gear that helped them win the points title. Giovinco and Altidore will give them an edge they lacked in the first leg, but after a long layoff between rounds, it might not be that easy to slide back into a more powerful gear.
The midfield matters
The team that wins the midfield battle generally wins the game -- or, in this case, gets what they want out of the result. Toronto FC controlled the center of the park at Mapfre Stadium and in the process starved the Crew attackers of service and space.
Columbus' ability to build from deep, usually going through captain Wil Trapp, was limited by Toronto's approach to midfield. Sitting deeper in defense and counting on Michael Bradley to dictate terms as a shield in front of the back line, TFC tasked Victor Vazquez and Jonathan Osorio with applying pressure and clogging passing lanes.
Without their preferred approach available, Columbus were less effective in wide areas and less able to push extra men into the attack. Federico Higuain was limited, Afful spent more time sitting deep and Jukka Raitala was pinned back. Justin Meram and Santos desperately missed runs from teammates that would have dragged defenders and created space.
Things will be very different in Toronto. Artur will be unavailable due to yellow card accumulation. TFC's more aggressive approach should open things up for Columbus, and it will be incumbent upon Trapp, Higuain & Co. to take advantage.
Goalkeepers have to perform
The hero of playoff games against Atlanta and NYCFC, Zack Steffen, had nothing to do in the Columbus net as the Reds registered zero shots on goal. Steffen's quiet night might have been a nice break for the 22-year old, but the Crew will wish his counterpart hadn't played so well on the other end.
It's not as though Bono had much more to do than Steffen -- Columbus took 14 shots, but only three were on goal -- but the Toronto goalkeeper stepped up when it mattered, saving Afful's point-blank shot in the last six minutes of the match. Bono's earlier intervention on Santos, a moment when he chose to come off his line and won the ball fairly according to referee Robert Sibiga, prevented a Crew chance and kept the game goalless.
Steffen isn't likely to go without facing a shot in the second leg. Bono, too, could be tested by a Crew attack capable of creating goal-scoring chances on the road.
The difference in this series, which features excellent attacking teams playing 90 more minutes for the right to host the MLS Cup final, could be which of the two young American keepers puts in the better performance at BMO Field.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.