Here are three things we learned from Toronto FC’s surprising 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Columbus Crew to open the 2018 MLS season.
1. MLS remains unpredictable
To start the season, a clash between what some might consider to be MLS’ new and old: defending champions Toronto FC, with their star-studded squad and crowds of over 25,000, and the Columbus Crew, with far less to spend and the threat of a move to Austin, Texas, hanging over them.
Old showed that new has not pulled away yet. The Crew are not in a position to give their best players millions of dollars or spend their discretionary, team-funded Targeted Allocation Money without even thinking, but smart shopping, a team identity and excellent coaching can still go a long way.
For Toronto, this game was a reminder that they cannot take the everyday MLS schedule lightly amid their commitments in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“I think we have to change the mentality,” Sebastian Giovinco said. “We don’t have to think about last year, we have to think about this year – and this year is more difficult.
“It’s better this problem came in the first game than the last.”
2. Toronto’s new signings need time to adjust
Giovinco refused to give any reason or excuse for the defeat beyond saying that Toronto’s mentality was not what it should have been.
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
The suggestions he turned down included a question about the difficulty of communicating with the club’s new signings. Gregory van der Wiel and Ager Aketxe, who does not speak much English, were both making their first starts.
But while Giovinco’s attitude was admirable, it was obvious that Columbus was deliberately routing their attacks down their left wing, with Van der Wiel stationed at right-back and Aketxe on the right side of the midfield diamond.
Van der Wiel was too casual when Artur floated a pass over his head that led to the Crew’s opening goal and Aketxe appeared unsure what to do in his own half. He was the only TFC outfield starter not to make a single tackle despite the volume of attacks that passed him.
There is more than enough evidence to suggest both players will be successful in MLS; Chris Mavinga, now regarded as one of the better central defenders in the league, had a similarly inauspicious start last season. But it is clear coach Greg Vanney will need time to work them into his game plans.
“It’s all part of the process,” Vanney said. “It’s also a reminder that every year is a new year and you’ve got to start again and you’ve got to build.”
3. Columbus looks capable of contending again
Few teams coming off strong seasons seemed to be thrown out of the playoff picture in the various opening-day predictions being made more easily than Columbus, who gave Toronto a real run for their money in last year’s conference finals.
That probably comes down to the doubt over the club’s future and the loss of winger Justin Meram and forward Ola Kamara.
On this evidence, though, the Crew look to have traded away the beneficiaries of coach Gregg Berhalter’s system rather than the keys to it. The outstanding central trio of Federico Higuaín, Artur and Wil Trapp remains and Gyasi Zardes appears to have landed in the perfect spot for a return to form.
There is plenty of promise on the left, too, in the pairing of full-back Milton Valenzuela – probably the most under-the-radar Designated Player signed this offseason – and winger Pedro Santos.
Columbus is not perfect. Second-year defender Lalas Abubakar, for example, looked more of a veteran than his DP partner Jonathan Mensah too often in this game. But Berhalter is one of MLS’ most accomplished thinkers and he has enough to work with, barring injuries, to return this side to the postseason.