OBETZ, Ohio – Toronto FC won’t have Jozy Altidore or Sebastian Giovinco for the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, TVAS) against Columbus Crew SC on Tuesday, but they’ll still have some serious attacking talent on the field at MAPFRE Stadium.
Midfielder Victor Vazquez will pull the attacking strings for the Reds, while Michael Bradley will attempt to set the tempo from his position deeper in the midfield. Both are among the best passers in MLS, with Vazquez finishing the regular season second in the league with 16 assists and Bradley setting up the Spaniard for plenty of those helpers.
“I think Bradley’s an excellent passer. He doesn’t need much space to open up the field, so he’s a guy we need to pay attention to, but Vazquez I think is going to embrace this role,” Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters on Monday. “He knows he’s going to have more responsibility on his shoulders and he’s going to be looking to move in pockets and spots that can really hurt us. In transition, we need to be absolutely aware of where he is at all times, and through the run of play again we’ll be tracking his movement and not letting him get the ball and turn and hurt us.”
Holding midfielder Wil Trapp will be tasked with defending Vazquez. The 24-year-old Crew SC captain knows it’ll be difficult to contain the former Club Brugge playmaker, who is excellent at finding pockets between the lines. Give him time on the ball, and his passing can shred even the best positioned back four.
“I think Vazquez is extremely intelligent,” Trapp said. “He knows where spaces are, he’s able to have the quality to turn and make final passes, so it’s really about understanding where he is, limiting time and space, and then denying his options to pass.
“Michael will be a little bit further back so the effect of the play will be a little bit more peripheral at times, but he can also find Vazquez in good pockets. When they’re breaking lines, they’re extremely effective.”
Columbus’ front four of Ola Kamara, Federico Higuain, Pedro Santos and Justin Meram will work together to make sure Bradley has a difficult time finding Vazquez in those good positions. They’ll attempt to deny Bradley passing lanes and try to pressure him quickly as soon as he’s on the ball. They’ll also look to take advantage of Bradley’s aggressiveness by quickly countering against Toronto when Bradley presses wide or high.
“Between him and Vazquez, I think both of them are going to be the ones controlling the tempo,” Meram said. “It’s kind of hard to stop Bradley because he’s always moving and he’s all over the place. I think we just have to be smart in understanding his positioning and how we can hurt them when he’s pressing and pulled out of the center, because he presses on both wings and covers because they have a back five. So for us, it’s understanding when to move inside and when to be outside.
“[Bradley's] got a probably abnormal work rate where it’s constant and he’s at a high tempo for 90 minutes, but sometimes that can work to our advantage.”