Columbus Crew SC had their chances to get the full three points on Tuesday. In front of a raucous crowd of 21,289 at MAPFRE Stadium, the Black and Gold took it to Toronto FC in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference finals. But in the end, the club settled for a 0-0 draw.
A simple look at some rudimentary statistics indicates the advantage Columbus enjoyed in the attacking department. They finished the game with twice as many total shots as Toronto (14-7), with three of them finding the target compared to none for the visiting Reds.
Columbus Crew SC Fullback Quality on Full Display in Scoreless Stalemate
The biggest opportunity came from Harrison Afful in the 85th minute. The Ghanaian right back initially laid the ball out wide to Federico Higuain, before making a darting run inside. TFC’s Eriq Zavaleta poorly cleared Higuain’s cross, which came right to Afful. But his shot rocketed right towards goalkeeper Alex Bono who parried it away.
Afful’s quality as a two-way full back is among the more impressive stories for Columbus during this playoff run. He nearly scored the game-winner in extra time against Atlanta United in the knockout round. In the first leg of the conference semis against New York City FC, he registered what will likely be the goal of the postseason which proved crucial to them advancing to this point.
“He’s an amazing player,” Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen remarked after the game. “He has so many skills and for him to get hot, we want him to get hot. So it’s great that he’s making his way up there and getting those chances.”
But on the other side of the back line, another player stepped up as well. Making his first start of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, Jukka Raitala played the full 90 minutes and showcased his own capabilities up and down the left flank. Despite appearing in just 47 of the club’s 300 playoff minutes before Tuesday’s match, the Finnish defender transmitted the aura of a grizzled veteran.
It was a promising display of the depth Columbus possesses at left back. That becomes apparent considering Hector Jimenez started the previous three playoff games and seven of their last eight regular season matches. Even Waylon Francis, whose minutes have dried up of late, boasts big game experience dating back to MLS Cup in 2015.
“It speaks wonders for our depth,” center back Josh Williams noted. “I’m comfortable with whoever they put there. I think they both add something different, Jukka obviously being a natural left-footer. But I thought he played well tonight. I thought he did great.”
Part of the rationale for deploying Raitala for this game centered on the opponent. His skill set appeared to be an ideal fit based on what TFC was going to bring to the table on Tuesday night.
“I think based on how we thought they were gonna play, we thought he could hurt them as left back,” head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter told the Columbus Dispatch. “That was the decision (to start him).”
It worked out well for the Black and Gold. Raitala displayed the versatility endemic to the modern day two-way fullback. He created two chances which saw him tied with Higuain for most on the team. Him and Afful accounted for half of the club’s open play crosses. And only Artur finished with more ball recoveries than his six on the night.
There’s certainly a valid argument that Columbus left a possible first leg win on the table. And that certainly paints the picture of a missed opportunity. But at the same time, the Black and Gold didn’t concede and precipitated TFC registering a goose egg in the shots on target department. Still, Toronto is getting Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore back in leg two from suspension and will be much more dangerous in the attack when these two sides renew pleasantries.
Nevertheless, Tuesday’s result reinforced an incontrovertible fact about this club’s roster. It boasts plenty of depth at key positions. Every player is willing and able to help this team reach MLS Cup against all odds and for its beleaguered fanbase. The final road on that quest leads them to Toronto for next Wednesday’s winner-take-all clash.