An under-strength Toronto FC tied Columbus Crew SC 0-0 in Game 1 of the MLS Eastern Conference final Tuesday night, surviving to fight another day.
It was hardly a masterpiece but Toronto, which did not put a shot on target, got the job done. And top-seeded TFC will be able to roll out its big guns — Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco — back from suspension when the series switches to BMO Field on Nov. 29.
But the league leaders achieved their goal of leaving Columbus with something — in this case a platform to finish the job at home. Consider this a bullet dodged.
"Nobody is celebrating anything tonight in here, that's for sure," said Toronto captain Michael Bradley, who was prominent on the night. "We handled things in a good way, in a solid professional way.
"We wanted to win the game. Having said that, 0-0 is a result that still means we go back home next week and we've got 90 minutes to win a game and get ourselves back in the [MLS Cup] final."
There is still work to do, however.
"Enjoy it now, it's a good result for us on the road but everything that happens in this game is null and void if we don't go take care of business at home," said Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono.
Toronto offered little on offence, with a patient safety-first approach that cleared the decks for the series rematch.
The visitors limited fifth-seeded Columbus to just four shots (one on target) in the first half. But the Crew came on strong in the second half, with nine more shots (two on target). Toronto had six shots in the first half and one in the second, all off the mark.
"There was a couple of acceptable results that we'd live with and this was one of them — 0-0 was one of the results we could live with," said Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter. "As the game wore on you saw how strong we were and how fit we were and I think that's going to bode well in the second leg. Because we have a really fit team in here and we can keep going and keep pushing like you saw in [the playoff win over] Atlanta as well."
Bono made a huge reflex save in the 85th minute, denying Harrison Afful from in close and substitute Kekuta Manneh's shot off the rebound was blocked.
Columbus screamed for a penalty in the 52nd minute after Pedro Santos went down in the penalty box. But the contact with Bono seemed a minimal clash of boots and referee Robert Sibiga waved it off.
Brazil's Artur shot just wide in the 72nd minute and Manneh hammered one off target in the 82nd for Columbus but chances were few and far between — and several other Columbus efforts were called offside.
Will be 'different team' at home
Toronto will be a far pricklier animal in the rematch, with its strike force restored.
Altidore and Giovinco, who were serving one-game suspensions resulting from the conference semifinal against the Red Bulls, will be back in Toronto's lineup. They combined for 31 (44 per cent) of TFC's 74 regular-season goals.
"We're an entirely different team with them on the field ," said coach Greg Vanney. "I think our ability to connect off the front line, our ability to have more playmakers, goal-scorers, difference-makers, they add something entirely different."
TFC has lost just twice this season at BMO Field. One of those defeats, however, came last time out at the hands of the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinal.
The Eastern final is a matchup of two teams on a mission, with league-leading Toronto looking to take another step on its record-breaking season. Columbus, meanwhile, is in an us-against-everybody mood as debate continues off the field on the franchise's future in the Ohio state capital.
'Save Our Crew'
The home team gave out yellow-and-black flags to fans but many entered Mapfre Stadium holding yellow .SaveTheCrew signs. The first "Save Our Crew" chant came in the eighth minute.
The game was a sellout of 21,289, the largest Crew crowd of the year.
During the regular season, Columbus ranked 20th in the 22-team league in attendance at 15,439 per game. Toronto was third at 27,647.
It was clear and nine degrees Celsius at kickoff with a phalanx of red-clad flag-waving Toronto fans squeezed into a section of the upper tier.
Canadian international Tosaint Ricketts, who scored seven goals during the regular season including a pair against Columbus, led the Toronto attack. His teammates had trouble connecting with him on the night.
Jonathan Osorio also came into the TFC lineup with Nicolas Hasler replacing Eriq Zavaleta as Vanney went to a 4-4-1-1 formation rather than the usual 3-5-2.
Bradley played deep when Columbus had the ball, keeping a close eye on Argentine playmaker Federico Higuain. As in recent away games, Bradley was booed whenever he touched the ball. The jeers didn't affect his game however, as he was a force in midfield, breaking up Columbus attacks.
Columbus made two changes with defender Jukka Raitala and Brazil's Artur slotting into the starting 11.
It was the first game for the two teams since Nov. 5 when both lost Game 2 of their conference semifinal but still advanced on aggregate — Toronto on the away goals rule after a 2-2 series tie with the New York Red Bulls and Columbus by a 4-3 margin over New York City FC.
Columbus finished 15 points below top-seeded Toronto in the regular season but the Crew have been hot of late. Prior to the playoff loss to NYCFC, Columbus was unbeaten in 12 games (8-0-4).