And, unlike their rough-and-tumble East semifinal series against New York, the Conference Championship duel between head coach Greg Vanney and TFC and manager Gregg Berhalter and Columbus should be interesting for all the right reasons.
“This is going to be about soccer,” TFC GM Tim Bezbatchenko said on Tuesday. “Two coaches that are tactically astute, understand numbers, spaces on the field. It becomes about the game of soccer. Last series became everything but that.
“Hopefully the story is about the key plays that push a team to advance. That's what is exciting,” continued Bezbatchenko. “I'm really looking forward to [it]. Much like the Montreal series [last year], it's about two teams that have an identity. Not a lot have a firm identity in the way they play. These two do. Montreal did. It becomes about the game, which is more entertaining for the fans.”
Vanney and Berhalter have both achieved largely excellent results since taking over their respective clubs. In Toronto, Vanney led the Reds to an appearance in MLS Cup 2016 and the Supporters’ Shield and all-time MLS regular season points record this year. In Columbus, Berhalter has implemented a clear, attacking system since arriving in 2014, using it to lead Crew SC to an appearance in MLS Cup 2015.
“Their deliberateness with the ball, positional sense, different rotations. They're very adept at moving and moving you around when they have the ball, which is an interesting skill,” said Vanney.
“He was one of the first coaches [in MLS] who really started to create purposeful attacks from back to front out of the movement from his team. They've continued to build on that: added players, created some versatility. Gregg, as a defender, always has a good sense of the defending side: organized, straightforward, keeps it simple. A lot of their attention is on what they do with the ball.”
What Crew SC do in possession is what Vanney is most focused on heading into next Tuesday’s first leg in Ohio.
“When they're in possession they give you different looks, different guys will show up in different pockets,” said Vanney. “[That] changes your reference points. You've got to be prepared to defend in different ways, not get caught chasing guys. We've got to be smart about that.”
Having met three times already this season, each is familiar with the threat the other poses.
Columbus won the first match 2-1 at MAPFRE Stadium, Toronto's first loss of the season. But TFC responded with a 2-1 win of their own before routing Crew SC 5-0 in the third matchup, the only at BMO Field.
The first two contests were largely close-fought, balanced affairs, which Vanney explained was the result of “two good teams who have a good identity, in terms of what they're trying to do.”
“Every game has adaptations within. If ever one team is gaining an edge, there is a shift in tactics that can disrupt the balance of power for a while,” said Vanney. “It goes back and forth; has little twists and turns.
“It comes down to executing in key moments. [In the 5-0], [Columbus] tried something different and we were able to take advantage. We executed to get ahead early and built off of that. If Gregg sees that the balance is in our favor, he'll shift something around to try to take it back, create a whole [new] set of circumstances and vice versa.”
That the two Greg(g)s careers progressed in parallel, only adds to the intrigue.
“We're the same age, we met and started playing at the U-20 US team together,” said Vanney. “Our paths have crossed through the national team, through coaching, over the last 20-something years. We've known each other for a long time.”
The two have taken different paths: Berhalter began his coaching career in Sweden with Hammarby IF after assisting Bruce Arena in Los Angeles, something that Vanney called “a unique and special experience”. Whereas Vanney progressed up from the academy ranks to his first head coaching job in Toronto.
“I know he went through some things, learned a lot about his ideas, his vision, and how he wanted to work with teams,” said Vanney. “He had done his coaching badges when he was playing in Europe. He knew he was on the path of becoming a coach. We all take our chance when we can get [them], learn from our experiences along the way.”
Vanney is under no illusion that because Columbus were the fifth seed in the East, this series will be any easier for top-seeded Toronto.
“Columbus was one of those teams that was safe early, which means you don't get talked about because you're not in jeopardy of [missing] the playoffs, not in position to win the Supporters' Shield,” said Vanney. “They didn't get as much recognition because of that.”
“They very quietly went along their business. Those who pay attention were putting out there, 'nine unbeaten, 10 in a row.' They're fully capable of making runs. Last year, when they didn't make the playoffs a lot of that was because they didn't finish off chances created as consistently as they had in years past. They're a good team. You have to be on your game to beat them.”