Sports

Beauty be damned, Toronto FC machine keeps rolling in the MLS playoffs

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In sport, as in life, aesthetics sometimes go out the window.

If every toilet in your home is plugged, you don't need a plumber who looks like Fabio. You want a professional with a plunger who can get the job done.

On Tuesday, without marquee strikers Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC showed its blue-collar side in a 0-0 tie with Columbus Crew SC in Game 1 of the MLS Eastern Conference final.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney switched from his usual fast-moving and stylish 3-5-2 formation to a more bottom-line-oriented 4-1-4-1 with captain Michael Bradley an Energizer Bunny playing deep to shield the backline while backup forward Tosaint Ricketts plowed a lone furrow up front.

The end result? Toronto survived the absence of its suspended stars and has a platform to finish off Columbus in the friendly confines of BMO Field. Tuesday night wasn't pretty but Toronto got the job done.

"You guys are calling Toronto the best team in the history of the MLS. And how many shots on goal do they have in the whole playoffs so far?" Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter asked reporters in his post-match news conference. "That's the nature of playoffs and they're smart enough to realize it and not get down about it. They just keep going."

For the record, Toronto has just four shots on goal in its three playoff games (1-1-1) so far. But its two goals scored — it has also conceded two — have been enough to move it within 90 minutes of its second straight MLS Cup appearance. 

It was a safety first approach for top-seeded Toronto on Tuesday.  

Despite wobbling in the second half in face of a renewed Columbus attack, Toronto limited the home side to a total of just three shots on target. The league leaders, lacking a cutting edge up front, had none.

With the series switching back to Toronto on Nov. 29, both teams claimed a 0-0 tie was OK in their books.

"There was a couple of acceptable results that we'd live with and this was one of them," said Berhalter.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney said the same but with a little less enthusiasm, calling the 0-0 tie "good" but "not a perfect result.

"We'd like to get a road goal. But at the end of the day we have to go back to Toronto and win the game. We'll be home, in front of our fans, in our stadium and we'll play to win the game."

Toronto was 13-1-3 at BMO Field during the regular season, leading the league with an .853 winning percentage on home soil. But there are warning signs.

Including the 1-0 playoff loss to the New York Red Bulls — Toronto won the conference semifinal on the away goals rule after a 2-2 aggregate tie — TFC has lost two of its last four home matches.

And the leagues's most potent offence, averaging 2.18 goals a game in the regular season, has not scored in 198 minutes.

Circumstances have dictated much of that. Toronto went into the finale of the Red Bulls series with a 2-1 lead. And the absence of 42 per cent of its goal-scoring in Altidore and Giovinco forced Vanney's hand in Columbus.

Bradley, as always, was the Toronto fulcrum. He broke up attacks and kept a close eye on Columbus playmaker Federico Higuain. The slick Argentine spent most of the night with his arm forlornly in the air, unsuccessfully demanding the ball like a parched man trying to order a drink.

"I thought he did a great job," Vanney said of Bradley. "Again our setup was good. I think it made sense for the day given the guys that we had and I thought he did a good job of manipulating our guys defensively and also controlling the pace for us with the ball. That's what we wanted.

"We wanted to be able to come in here and have our fair share of possession over the course of the day so we weren't in a defensive posture."

At one point in the first half, Toronto completed a 24-pass sequence that covered two-thirds of the field before goalkeeper Alex Bono kicked a long ball into touch. It was akin to keeping the Columbus offence off the field for the duration.

"In the first half they played well. We had to make an adjustment at halftime to get more pressure on the ball," said Berhalter.

It worked. Toronto had 52.5 per cent possession in the first half but just 42 per cent in the second with Higuain moving deeper to free himself of the shackles of Bradley.

Fifth-seeded Columbus outshot Toronto 13-7 (3-0 in shots on target) on the night, with a 9-1 (2-0 on target) edge in the final 45 minutes.

Vanney said another goal of his revamped formation was to "be able to oppose them a little bit higher, not be so deep when we deal with them."

It worked in the fact that centre backs Jonathan Mensah (73) and Josh Williams (62) had the most passes by Columbus players on the night. Higuain had 60, in contrast.

Bradley, who deserves MVP consideration this season, led Toronto with 88 passes and all players with 100 touches.

Bono was there when needed, making a huge reflex save off Harrison Afful in the 85th minute to preserve the tie.

Columbus will be without Brazilian midfielder Artur for the second leg for yellow-card accumulation. Mohammed Abu is the likely replacement.

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