Columbus faces rival Toronto with an MLS Cup berth in the balance
“We're not done yet.” That's been a mantra for the #SaveTheCrew movement, but for at least another week it also applies to the action on the pitch. After a 16-day (!) pause for FIFA international play, the MLS postseason resumes Tuesday, Nov. 21, with Columbus hosting bitter rival Toronto FC in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The series will adhere to the same aggregate, home-and-home format employed in the last round, in which the Crew shellacked New York City FC at home and then held on for dear life on the road. This time the winner advances to the MLS Cup.
Toronto had the best regular season in MLS history, so carrying a lead into the second leg on Wednesday, Nov. 29, will be crucial. Because away goals are the first tiebreaker, even more important than running up the score will be keeping Toronto's all-star attack off the score sheet in Columbus.
That won't be easy, but Toronto has helped the Crew's cause significantly. Star striker Jozy Altidore was red-carded last game for an altercation in the locker-room tunnel at halftime and will be suspended for Tuesday's match. So is former league MVP Sebastian Giovinco, thanks to yellow card accumulation.
Yet even without its top two scorers, Toronto's deep roster still boasts assist machine Victor Vazquez and many scoring threats including Justin Morrow and Tosaint Ricketts. Plus, you never know when midfielder Michael Bradley might repeat his two-goal performance at Mapfre Stadium during World Cup qualifying back in 2009.
If anyone can stop them it's Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who's been playing out of his mind lately. He's the clear MVP of this playoff run so far, though his goalposts and crossbar deserve honorable mentions. When you're an apparent team of destiny, opponents' shots tend to find the woodwork.
As for Columbus attackers to keep an eye on, the trio of Ola Kamara, Federico Higuain and Justin Meram accounted for the vast majority of Crew goals this season. Kamara is coming off two appearances with Norway's national team, Higuain is a finalist for MLS Comeback Player of the Year, and Columbus is a perfect 11-0 when Meram scores this year. “I better keep scoring, dammit,” he told The Columbus Dispatch last week.
Mapfre should be electric on Tuesday, with a sell-out crowd expected to cheer on the Crew (and likely jeer its owner) at what might be the final home playoff game in franchise history. With any luck, that won't prove to be true in the short-term or the long-term.