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Shorthanded, Composed Toronto FC Resists in Columbus, Heads Into Second Leg Confident

A scoreless draw in Columbus suits Toronto FC just fine, and the Eastern Conference favorite will head home and welcome back its top two scorers with high hopes of returning to the MLS Cup final.

A year ago, Toronto FC exited the November international break, entered hostile territory for the first leg of the conference finals and promptly yielded two goals in 12 minutes.

The Reds handled the time off a lot more effectively this time. Missing their two most prolific attacking players, the cohesive and conservative Supporters' Shield winners suffocated the host Columbus Crew for the first 12 minutes in Tuesday night’s game at sold-out Mapfre Stadium—and then for most of the ensuing 78 for good measure. Toronto will head north happy with the 0-0 draw and looking forward to welcoming back Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore for next week’s Eastern Conference finals decider.

Here are three thoughts on the third first-leg stalemate of these MLS Cup playoffs:

The favorites play it smart

Thanks to the FIFA break, Toronto coach Greg Vanney had a solid 16 days to figure out how to knock the fifth-seeded Crew off their game and set his shorthanded squad up to win the series at BMO Field. And it showed. First legs are almost never pretty, and after surviving a chippy conference semifinal series against the New York Red Bulls, TFC (21-6-10) wasn’t going to care about style points in Columbus.

“The playoffs are not about style of play. They're about getting results, winning, putting up with stuff you don't have to normally put up with,” Vanney said during the layoff. “What you have to do is adjust and adapt. Do what you need to do in a moment to get to the result that you need to get. We've done that very well.”

The compact Reds played with four in the back rather than the typical three, and captain Michael Bradley was stationed just in front to act as a shield, fulcrum and distributor. He was on the ball almost constantly. TFC attackers Victor Vázquez and Tosaint Ricketts didn’t get many looks, but neither did Columbus (17-13-8) during a tight and tactical first hour. And that’s what mattered most for the favorites.

When the game opened up a bit as the Crew took more chances and worried less about the opposition counter, TFC made the plays it needed to within its own penalty area. The Reds were fortunate not to fall behind when Harrison Afful seized on a poor clearance from Drew Moor, but deserved credit—and the draw—for shrinking the Crew’s 90-minute home-field advantage to 30.

Against New York, a loss of composure cost TFC the services of Giovinco and Altidore. In Columbus, composure was kept and a clean sheet resulted.

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Too little, too late for Columbus

A long layoff is always going to be harder on the team that needs to be cohesive and creative from the get-go. On Tuesday, the most synchronized people wearing yellow and black were the fans at Mapfre, who put a lot more pressure on Bradley with their well-timed boos than the Crew managed with their midfielders.

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Columbus took only four shots in the first half—three from long range.

More commitment in the second stanza produced some chances, if not results. Attacking Bradley, who would’ve missed the return leg with another yellow card, produced two good opportunities. Justin Meram slipped by Bradley in the 52nd and fed a pass through to Pedro Santos, who was nudged off the ball by TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono. Crew striker Ola Kamara then saw his shot blocked by Moor.

In the 73rd, Columbus midfielder Artur split Bradley and Vázquez and sent a well-hit shot just past the upper-right corner of the TFC net. Afful then had his golden opportunity in the 85th, but Bono stood tall and parried the shot away.

Crew wide men Meram and Pedro Santos found little room with which to work, and the late aggression paid no dividends. Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter may be pleased his side held TFC scoreless, but ultimately the Crew failed to press the issue against a team that wasn’t going to be much of a threat going forward.

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Crew face historic challenge

Columbus has won in Toronto. The Crew left BMO Field with three points in 2012, ’13 and ’15. But those TFCs weren’t this TFC, and this TFC now will be bringing Giovinco (17 goals) and Altidore (15 goals) back from suspension. Simply put, one of the biggest upsets in MLS history—perhaps the biggest—will be required on November 29 for the Crew to keep their stirring run alive and make their second MLS Cup final appearance in three years.

TFC’s loss to New York in the second leg of the conference semis was only its second home defeat this year.

Columbus will play without Artur, the talented Brazilian who saw yellow after a first-half foul on Bradley. He’ll be suspended. An away goal will alter the equation, of course, and the Crew will have to hope Toronto’s eagerness to attack gives the visitors the opening they need. In Tuesday’s first leg, those opportunities were too few and too late.

Toronto is just where it wants to be.

“All in all, a good night," Bradley told reporters in Columbus. "In the end, we walk away with everything to play for going back to our place."