Mar 3, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Columbus Crew midfielder Federico Higuain (10) celebrates his goal against Toronto FC with Columbus Crew defender Milton Valenzuela (19) during the first half at BMO Field. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
One of these clubs is coming off a treble. The other faces uncertainty over its very existence.
On this evidence, though, the Columbus Crew’s problems on the soccer field will be far fewer than those they are going through off it.
Gregg Berhalter’s team stunned defending MLS Cup champion Toronto FC in the season opener at BMO Field on Saturday, securing a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Federico Higuaín and debutant Gyasi Zardes.
Milton Valenzuela, another Columbus new boy, had an assist on Higuaín’s strike in the first half.
Toronto’s offseason additions did not fare so well. Both right back Gregory van der Wiel and midfielder Ager Aketxe offered glimpses of the class that had put them at clubs in Europe’s top leagues, but found the side of the field they occupied exploited all too often by the visitors.
Pedro Santos, who set up Zardes’ second, was influential from his station on the left wing.
Columbus fired Toronto a warning early on when right winger Cristian Martínez cut inside to reach a pass-and-go one on one with goalkeeper Alex Bono. His shot bounced off the post to safety.
Though a Reds team littered with attacking talent looked dangerous in the final third, though, it struggled to pass the ball out from the back cleanly.
“The first half was, clearly, not really in the vision of what we wanted,” coach Greg Vanney said. “We wanted to have more of the ball.
“In the shape we were playing (a 4-4-2 diamond), if you don’t have a lot of the ball it’s not necessarily the most efficient defending system. The point of it is to be able to have more midfielders, to be able to have possession of the ball, to be able to get the ball up the field and create chances and to get numbers up the field so we can oppose defensively up the field.”
The Crew also had the wind in their favor and made the most of that advantage shortly before the break. Artur floated a long pass out to the right of Toronto’s box which Valenzuela retrieved under little pressure, Van der Wiel seeming to expect it to carry out for a goal kick.
The 19-year-old left-back fired a cross into the path of Higuaín, whose shot had enough power to squirm through Bono’s grasp.
It got worse for Toronto immediately after the restart. Santos, again in far too much space on the left, measured a wonderful pass behind the TFC defence into the path of Zardes, who needed only one touch to convert from close range.
A few minutes later, an injury suffered by Victor Vázquez prompted Vanney to switch from the 4-4-2 diamond to a 3-5-2, introducing Auro at right wing-back and sliding Van der Wiel inside.
That improved Toronto’s play, but not their luck.
Sebastian Giovinco, one of the hosts’ better performers on the day, saw a curling left-footed shot rebound off the post. When Auro retrieved it with goalkeeper Zack Steffen down, he attempted a failed low cross into traffic rather than firing a shot at the vacant net.
“At the beginning [the team] was not in a good way,” Giovinco said afterwards, appearing to allude to last season’s haul of silverware being showcased on the field before the game. “We continue to show the trophy, we continue to think [about] what happened last year.
“This is, I think, for me, no good. I think this year is a very difficult year. I think this [result] is good, because we [now] know it’s a tough year.”
Aketxe also rattled the woodwork, hitting the crossbar with a looping shot from even further out.
With Vázquez and Jozy Altidore subdued and Michael Bradley overrun for much of the game, though, it was hard to argue Columbus did not deserve the three points.
Toronto is left to pick up the pieces and regroup ahead of a huge game against Liga MX powerhouse Tigres on Wednesday night. The Crew face another Canadian side when they host the Montreal Impact next weekend.