Stejskal: Crew SC leave fans wanting, but have everything still to play for

COLUMBUS, Ohio – At its simplest, soccer is a game of give and take. As a team pushes forward, space that their opponent can exploit simultaneously opens in the back. It’s less rocket science than risk management, with the best teams existing in the happy medium where the attack flows and the defense dominates.

Neither Columbus Crew SC nor Toronto FC found that balance in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship series on Tuesday night at MAPFRE Stadium. As series openers so often are, Tuesday’s scoreless draw was a tight, tense affair, with neither team willing to risk too much in the back for any foray forward.

That works just fine for Toronto FC. The Supporters’ Shield winners were without star attackers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore due to suspension on Tuesday, and were rightly pleased with their disciplined performance against the Crew SC’s potent attack. They’ll gladly take the scoreless draw into next Wednesday’s second leg at BMO Field (7:30 pm ET; FS1, FOX Deportes in US | TSN1/4/5, TVAS in Canada) where they throttled Columbus 5-0 back in May.

“I thought we handled things in a good way,” TFC captain Michael Bradley said after the match. “Took a good, solid, professional approach to things. In a perfect world, we’d have scored, walked out of here with a win and with an away goal, but that wasn’t in the cards tonight. And on a night when we weren’t able to put a play together on that end, we still dealt with things in a really good way on the other end.”

It was a different sort of result for Columbus. A scoreless draw isn’t the end of the world for Crew SC, something head coach Gregg Berhalter and several players made sure to note after the match, but failing to hit the back of the net marked something of a missed opportunity for Columbus. The Black & Gold had a sellout crowd at their backs and were going up against a Toronto team without two of their best players. The conditions were ripe for a solid opening leg win, but they just couldn’t break through.

They started the match somewhat passively, taking a few minutes to figure out Toronto’s new-look four-man backline and not putting TFC under much real pressure throughout the opening 45 minutes. Toronto outpossessed Columbus 52.5-47.5 percent in the first half, with Crew SC content to let Bradley drop deep and rotate the ball as they blocked off passing lanes and kept close tabs on Victor Vazquez. It was an effective defensive plan, but it didn’t lead to many chances against a Toronto team that looked very comfortable.

Columbus upped the pressure in the second half and created a few excellent opportunities in the final 10 minutes, but it felt like too little, too late. Plenty of that was due to Toronto, who truly were solid defensively. Despite their slightly tweaked formation, TFC were disciplined with their shape. Apart from a few minutes at the end of the game, their defenders rarely chased out of their zones, forcing Columbus to beat them with quality instead of inviting them into the series by making a mistake. Combine that with Columbus being off with their final ball, and it’s no surprise TFC became the first team to record a shutout at MAPFRE Stadium since July 1.

“There’s a reason why they gave up the fewest amount of goals [this regular season],” said Crew SC defender Josh Williams, who spent 2015 and 2016 with Toronto. "They don’t leak goals, they don’t leak easy goals, you’ve got to earn it. I thought they did a good job of getting numbers behind the ball, their coaching staff did a good job preparing them, cutting off passing lanes, I mean they threw out a couple different formations. I thought they did a good job of just disrupting our flow a little bit.”

While Tuesday was a bit of a missed opportunity for Columbus, they’re still in a decent position heading into the return leg in Ontario.

Taking out Toronto will be an incredibly tall order, particularly with Giovinco and Altidore back in the lineup, but they’ve still got a shot.