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KNOW YOUR OPPONENT: Columbus Crew SC

When the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs resume after the international break, Toronto FC will square off with an old friend: Columbus Crew SC. 

Leg 1 is scheduled for Tuesday, November 21 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus and Leg 2 will be played on Wednesday, November 29 at BMO Field. 

The road to the MLS Cup Final goes through Columbus.

In anticipation of the first-ever post-season edition of the Trillium Cup, one must first know the opponent...


COLUMBUS CREW SC

Another of the 10 charter clubs in the first season of MLS back in 1996, Columbus were then known solely as the Crew, with the 'SC', or 'soccer club', added in 2014.

They began life at Ohio Stadium on the campus of The Ohio State University where they played the first three seasons. Come 1999, Columbus was the location of MLS soccer history, becoming the first club to move into a soccer-specific stadium: Columbus Crew Stadium, now MAPFRE.

Three-time Supporters' Shield champions (2004, 2008, 2009), Crew SC have won the MLS Cup once, in 2008 over the New York Red Bulls. Twice they have been crowned champions of the Eastern Conference (2008 and 2015) thus advancing to the MLS Cup proper, losing the latter 2-1 to the Portland Timbers.

Led by coach Gregg Berhalter, Columbus have leaned on an attacking triumvirate of Ola Kamara (18 goals, 3 assists), Justin Meram (13, 7), and Federico Higuain (9, 14), solid goalkeeping from Zack Steffen, a little bit of luck and an awful lot of emotion, to reach this stage of the competition.


HOW THEY GOT HERE

Crew SC finished fifth in the Eastern Conference on 54 points from 34 matches, riding high into the playoffs on the back of a 10-match unbeaten run.

A 2-2 draw on Decision Day against NYCFC saw them neither move up, nor down, ensuring a Knockout Round encounter with the high-powered offense of Atlanta United FC.

After 120 minutes of wildly entertaining, if ultimately scoreless soccer, Columbus would move on via spot kicks thanks in part to two saves from Steffan in the shootout, denying the first two Atlanta takers to give his side the advantage.

The Eastern Conference Semifinal pitted Crew SC once more against NYCFC. In the first match, a sixth-minute strike from Kamara gave Columbus the lead in the home leg before a VAR-assisted red card to New York City's Alexander Callens impacted the series.

Crew SC would add two more in short order through Artur and Meram before David Villa pulled once back give his side a glimmer of hope. Harrison Afful all but ended the series with Columbus' fourth of the night, walking through half the NYC side deep in stoppage-time before beating Sean Johnson in goal.

Come the second leg, NYCFC refused to go quietly with Villa scoring from the penalty spot in first half. The home side ensured an interesting conclusion with a second, putting themselves within a goal of overturning the tie, from Andraz Struna, but Crew SC held out for the 4-3 aggregate win to progress to the East Final. 


FLOWER POWER

Before the other Canadian clubs joined MLS, Columbus were Toronto's primary rival, facing off for the Trillium Cup every year since 2008. The Trillium is both the official state wildflower of Ohio and Ontario's provincial flower.

Crew SC dominated the early years, winning the first three editions and three of the ensuing five, but TFC has won the last two. In 10 editions, Columbus has six to Toronto's four.

The closest opponent for many years, Columbus has oft been a favourite road trip for TFC fans, including an epic travelling contingent of some 2,000 who made the trek south in 2009.

MLSsoccer.com has a nice primer on the rivalry from 2015; TorontoFC.ca looked back over the top five moments in 2016.


RECENT MATCHES

The sides have met 31 times over the 11 seasons since Toronto's inaugural 2007 campaign. Columbus hold the advantage with 13 wins to Toronto's eight, with the other 10 matches ending in draws.

That pattern has levelled out of late, as the sides have split the last nine matches over the past three seasons, each winning three and drawing the remainder.

Heading into their first-ever playoff encounter, TFC are riding a two-match winning streak.

Columbus took the first meeting of 2017, winning 2-1 in Columbus on April 15. Jozy Altidore opened the scoring but Kamara and Meram scored before half-time to overturn the early strike.

Toronto won the second on May 10, again in Columbus, by the same scoreline with a late pair of goals from Tosaint Ricketts, who looks to factor heavily in the upcoming series, after Higuain gave the hosts the lead from the penalty spot in the opening half-hour.

The Trillium Cup would be decided in the third match, where Toronto decimated Columbus, winning 5-0 with goals from four different players, to lift the trophy – their first of the season, a nice warm-up for those to come. 


Victor Vazquez opened the scoring from the spot before Justin Morrow added a second before halftime. Vazquez added his second with the cheekiest of free-kicks under the jumping wall, which prompted Greg Vanney to call him “the most clever attacking midfielder in MLS,” before Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton furthered Columbus' embarrassment.

Rest assured, Crew SC will have that result, and making amends for it, firmly in mind when the two square off in this November series.


THE TIES THAT BIND 

The trip to Columbus will be a homecoming for two TFC players born in Ohio: Morrow is a native of Cleveland, while Nick Hagglund hails from Cincinnati.

And the Crew SC roster has one former TFC player in its midst: Josh Williams signed there after leaving the Reds last season.

And for Canadian fans, former international goalkeeper Pat Onstad is on the coaching staff in Columbus.

TFC assistant coach Robin Fraser ended his playing career in Columbus, playing the 2004 and 2005 seasons with Crew SC. He won the Supporters' Shield there in 2004, his second, and was named Defender of the Year that same season.

Connections aside, expect a tactical masterclass as in the two Greg(g)'s, this series features two of the more cerebral coaches in MLS. In addition, with Michael Bradley in red and Wil Trapp in yellow, the battle in the middle of the park will be an almighty one.

Each side also has a player who relishes doing damage to the other. Pipa Higuain loves playing TFC. He has six goals and six assists in fourteen matches. The odds on him trying a chip on Alex Bono are strong. Altidore, with four goals in seven matches against Crew SC, will be looking to do the same.

And who can forget this moment from the end of the 2010 season: Columbus goalkeeper Will Hesmer popping up in the Toronto at the last minute to secure his side a 2-2 in the final home match of the campaign.

Expect lots of action, lots of drama, and some good football.... Should be a fun one.


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Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs

12 teams battle for MLS supremacy. Who will rise, who will fall? Don't miss the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, October 25th - December 9th on TSN & TVAS.