Defending MLS Cup champion TFC ready to play opener against revenge-minded Crew

Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) scores on Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen (23) as Crew defender Lalas Abubakar (17) looks on during second half MLS eastern conference final playoff soccer action in Toronto on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. Toronto FC knows the Columbus Crew will have revenge on their minds when the two clubs hit the pitch on Saturday afternoon at BMO Field. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Toronto FC knows the Columbus Crew will have revenge on their minds when the two clubs hit the pitch on Saturday afternoon at BMO Field.

Toronto defeated the Crew 1-0 on aggregate in the Eastern Conference final last season before getting past Seattle in the MLS Cup. The Reds also took two of three regular-season meetings between the teams.

"They're very measured when they played against us," said defender Justin Morrow. "They dig deep in to tactics, they know our tactics well. As opponents we know each other well in the past year. We're both good clubs and it's going to be a good battle."

Toronto piled up the hardware last season, adding the Supporters' Shield and Canadian championship to its first MLS Cup title. Toronto finished last season with a league-best 69-points and tied a league record with 20 wins.

As they get set to open the MLS regular season at home for the first time in franchise history, the Reds know they'll have a target on their back all season.

"We always put pressure on ourselves, that's the biggest motivator for our group: we set our goals and that doesn't change," said Morrow.

"We had a big target on our back last year and the goals we set for ourselves are the most important."

Toronto players are hoping the two games of CONCACAF Champions League action already under their belt will give them an advantage over a Columbus team that went 4-1-0 in pre-season play.

Toronto advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals after defeating the Colorado Rapids 2-0 on aggregate in the round-of-16, setting up a meeting with Mexican side Tigres UANL beginning next Wednesday at BMO Field.

"I think always it's nice to have games that matter before another team has played a game that has some weight to it so I think we'll be ready for the challenge," said TFC defender Nick Hagglund.

While the Reds still have much of the core that defeated Seattle 2-0 for the MLS Cup in December, Gregg's Berhalter's team has undergone changes throughout the off-season.

The Crew lost Justin Meram and Ola Kamara, who accounted for over 58 per cent of the team's goals last season. Both were dealt after reportedly asking for trades.

In exchange for Kamara, Columbus landed forward Gyasi Zardes from the LA Galaxy.

They also secured Brazilian midfielder Artur on a permanent transfer from Sao Paulo FC. The 21-year-old made 24 appearances with the Crew last season.

"Obviously they brought in Gyasi, he's had a good pre-season," said Reds coach Greg Vanney. "Last year, he had some tough times trying to finish off some things and some goals, but he's a good player, we all knew that. Maybe a change of scenery, a new system and a little more structure around him — he seemed to have a nice off-season.

"Plus he's got (Federico) Higuain who is very clever in terms of manipulating space and final passes and all that stuff so just seeing Gyasi, I think, flourish again, we have to keep an eye on him."

Columbus will be without midfielder Mike Grella and defender Gaston Sauro, who are both nursing knee injuries while midfielder Pedro Santos (thigh) and defender Josh Williams (foot) are questionable for Saturday's opener.

The Crew finished last season fifth in the Eastern Conference with 54 points before upsetting Atlanta United and New York City FC in the playoffs.

"They're very good with the ball and they have a lot of different places that they'll rotate and shift guys," Vanney said. "We have to be smart about how they defend and make sure, when we have the ball, we take care of it and we try to hurt them as much as we can we have the ball."


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