OBETZ, Ohio – Before Columbus Crew SC took the field to complete their own Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup against New York City FC Sunday, the club watched as Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls fought a war of attrition.
The first game of the day ended with six yellow cards and two players ejected, along with several fiery confrontations and a match full of physicality. When the dust settled, Toronto advanced, but will be missing stars Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco due to a red card and a second playoff yellow, respectively.
Columbus midfielder Justin Meram said the way the match played out made sense, especially with New York involved.
“The Red Bulls are a different breed than most teams,” he said. “I think that’s where they find their success – the chippiness, getting under your skin.”
And while it nearly worked to perfection for New York in Toronto – the Red Bulls won 1-0, but lost the series on away goals – head coach Gregg Berhalter said his team won’t be trying to emulate New York’s approach.
“That’s not our style,” he said. “Our style is to do our talking on the field. We don’t want to engage in that type of game, and they know that. We want it to be a well-played, entertaining series.”
The absence of Altidore and Giovinco won’t be lulling Columbus into a false sense of security, either.
While it’s impossible to ignore the talent that will be missing from the match, Berhalter and his players said they can’t afford to think Toronto doesn’t have other weapons.
“It’s definitely an advantage to not have two of the best strikers in the league [playing],” said Crew SC defender Josh Williams, who played for Toronto in 2015 and 2016. “You’d be an idiot to not think momentum is swinging on your side a little bit. But they have such a deep team.
“Tosaint Ricketts is a completely different player than those guys, and then you have a guy like [Victor] Vazquez who’s, to me, right up there with the MVP. … And you’ve got the general, Michael [Bradley] back there. So they’re going to be ready to play.”
Berhalter did admit that he’s relieved he doesn’t have to deal with Giovinco’s lethal free kicks in one of the matches.
“They’re not going to be as good on direct set pieces, I’ll tell you that,” he said with a laugh. “He’s the best in the league. What it does is it gives you that one moment when they get a free kick and you hold your breath for the next minute until he takes it.”
Columbus players say they’re focused on what they expect will be an intense series. And despite watching Toronto be flustered in the last round, they don’t expect any hangover from Sunday’s drama.
“As crazy as the whole brouhaha was there in the tunnel, you still have veteran players who have been there,” Williams said. “So I don’t think anything like that is going to cause too much of a stir for them.”