One game away from the MLS Cup final, Toronto FC and Columbus Crew SC are two teams trying to reach the same destination via different paths.
On Wednesday night, one journey will come to an end in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final, with everything to play for after a scoreless tie in Ohio.
Toronto (20-5-9) racked up victories throughout a record-breaking regular season. Columbus (16-12-6) was 10-12-2 in early August before reeling off a 10-game unbeaten run (6-0-4) to end the regular season.
And while the two franchises are winning on the field, they are occupying a markedly different space off it.
Toronto, the best team in Major League Soccer this year, is bidding to complete a historic season with the only hardware that matters. The well-heeled franchise has all its big guns available Wednesday with star strikers Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco — and their 31 goals — back from suspension.
A sellout crowd will be roaring TFC on at BMO Field, where Toronto lost just twice in 2017 — once during the regular season and once in the post-season. Toronto (13-1-3) led the league with an .853 home winning percentage during the regular season.
Future in question
Fifth-seeded Columbus is wondering where its future lies after next season, with ownership talk of a move to Austin, Texas. It ranked 20th in the league in attendance, averaging 15,439 fans a game in a stadium that looks like it came out of a Lego box.
The Crew did their talking on the field, adding two playoff wins to the unbeaten run at the end of the regular season. Apart from a 2-0 playoff defeat at the hands of New York City FC — Columbus still won the Eastern Conference semifinal 4-3 on aggregate — the Crew’s last loss was Aug. 5.
“People forget that we went 12 games unbeaten … We went three months without losing a game,” said Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter.
“We’ve been plugging away,” he added. “We’re a good team. We keep our heads down and we keep working. We want to play our game. It’s a really simple formula. We want to host MLS Cup in front of our fans and we want to give them a great game — no better game than the MLS Cup. But we have to go out and do it.”
Ready to play
Given the glacial pace of the MLS playoffs, both teams can’t wait for the whistle to blow.
“They’re tired of training, they’re tired of talking, I’m sure, about all of this. They’re just looking forward to getting out on the field and settling it,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said of his charges.
With away goals counting double in event of an aggregate tie, a Columbus goal would make life difficult for the home side. If the Crew score one, Toronto will have to answer with two and so on.
“I think we are ready for it,” said Toronto’s Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez. “We have the best squad in MLS and we will do it for sure.”
The margins in MLS are always tight, especially in the business end of the schedule.
Despite rewriting the club record book and setting a league mark with 69 points during a stellar regular season, Toronto has been winning ugly of late.
It has only managed a 1-1-1 record in the playoffs with just four shots on goal in total (none in Game 1 in Columbus). Including the regular season it has lost two of its last four home matches and hasn’t scored in its last 198 minutes home and away.
But it keeps rolling.
Captain Michael Bradley called his team’s performance in Columbus in Game 1 “a mature professional performance and it sets up for ultimately what we’ve all wanted all season long — which is the chance to play in our stadium in our city with everything on the line to put ourselves back in a final.
“In the end if don’t take care of things then it will be [Wednesday] night that lets us down and not the first game.”
Columbus is 2-1-1 in the playoffs despite being shut out three times (its first-round win in Atlanta came via penalty shootout). The Crew have not scored in 180 minutes but are still very much in it.
While Vazquez will try to set the table for Altidore and Giovinco, Columbus will look to Argentine maestro Federico Higuain to connect with Ola Kamara, Justin Meram and Pedro Santos.
Vanney pointed to some key absences in his lineup and disruptive opponents for interfering with the TFC rhythm of late. He has liked what he’s seen in practice recently.
‘It’s not always going to go perfect’
“This week the training sessions were starting to show a lot of those great things we were able to do over the course of the season,” he said.
While Columbus may be the team of destiny given its uncertain future, Toronto is arguably the side with a deeper toolbox.
“If you want to be a good team, if you want to be a team that competes for trophies, that wins trophies, you have to be able to win on different type of days,” said Bradley. “It’s not always going to go perfect. Things don’t always play out exactly how you would like. And that can’t faze you.”
Fifteen different Toronto players combined for 74 goals this season. Columbus’s 53 goals came from 10 different scorers.
“We’ve gotten goals from all over the place this year,” Bradley reminded reporters.
Vazquez promised there are more where those came from, saying: “We have the best strikers in the league back [from suspension] and for sure we’re going to create a lot of chances.”
Wednesday’s game features the last two MLS Cup runners-up. Toronto lost to Seattle in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 tie at BMO Field last December. Columbus was beaten 2-1 by Portland at Mapfre Stadium in 2015.
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