Toronto FC starts a strange new chapter some 600 kilometres away from BMO Field on Sunday when it kicks off for the first time at its pandemic home away from home in East Hartford, Conn.
Forced to finish out the MLS season south of the border because of COVID-19 travel restrictions barring teams coming north, Toronto (7-2-4) "hosts" league-leading Columbus Crew SC (9-1-3) in the first of six scheduled regular-season games at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
It's a battle of Eastern Conference heavyweights — a matchup complicated by the fact both clubs are playing their third game in eight days.
"This will be a good test," said Toronto coach Greg Vanney. "It's a team that has shown to be one of the leaders this year, for sure, especially in terms of goals against but also very good at creating chances.
"I know from our perspective we're looking forward to this match. It's another challenge. And it's our first opportunity to play here in Hartford. The field's in great condition and we've enjoyed our time here so far. So we're looking to get off on the right foot if we can."
Columbus coach Caleb Porter admits all he knows of the Hartford stadium is what he has seen online. But he too welcomes the challenge, if not the selection headaches due to the schedule congestion.
"If we want to be the best, we've got to beat the best," said Porter. "And I would say Toronto is definitely, without question, one of the best teams in the league."
"I'm looking forward to the game," he added. "I know the guys are. It'll tell us a lot, I think, with where we're at."
For fourth-place Toronto, it's another chance to derail a team riding a six-game undefeated streak after edging New York City FC 1-0 midweek.
Columbus has gone 4-0-2 over its past six outings, outscoring the opposition 10-3 along the way. The Crew have given up two goals in a game just once in 13 matches, with nine shutouts.
Columbus (conceding 0.38 goals a game) and NYCFC (0.77) stood 1-2 in the league on defence after the midweek games. Toronto was sixth (1.08).
But unlike NYCFC, which ranked 25th on offence at 0.77 goals a game, Columbus stood eighth (1.69). That's just above Toronto (1.62).
The Crew are getting big performances from all three designated players.
U.S. international forward Gyasi Zardes leads the attack with nine goals and three assists. Argentine attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan has five goals and four assists (in just nine games).
Portuguese midfielder Pedro Santos has three goals and six assists, with all the goals and four of those assists coming in the past five games.
"Our defending has gotten a lot of talk, and yet, I think quietly, we're becoming one of the best attacking teams in the league," Porter said after Columbus's 2-1 midweek win over visiting Minnesota.
Santos and Zelarayan each had a goal and an assist, with Santos setting up Zelarayan to cap off an elegant 17-pass sequence that started with a goal kick.
"There's nothing more beautiful than to see a goal like that take shape," said Porter. "And it doesn't happen by accident. Those are things that are drilled and trained."
Santos turned heads with the Crew's second goal, roofing a shot from a tight angle.
Despite the five-point gap in the standings, Porter sees his team as the underdog Sunday.
"Listen, they're a super club. And they're definitely favoured in the game," he said of Toronto. "Obviously we're top of the table, but most people are going to favour them — for good reason — (for) what they're done over the last three, four years.
"We've not done anything yet and they've proven to be one of the top clubs in MLS. They've got quality players, they've got a good coach. And that's why they've been in or around the MLS Cup the last three, four years. So it's our toughest test."
While sporting a perfect home record at 6-0-0, Columbus is 0-1-3 on the road (not counting its three group-game wins at the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida).
The stands at the 38,000-seat venue will be empty Sunday, although Toronto president Bill Manning says the club may look into the possibility of letting some fans in for later matches, depending on local authorities.
TORONTO FC (7-2-4) vs. COLUMBUS CREW SC (9-1-3)
Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field, East Hartford, Conn.
CANADIAN TIES: Columbus's front office includes three former Toronto executives in Tim Bezbatchenko (president and GM), Jaime McMillan (vice-president, soccer administration & operations) and Corey Wray (assistant GM & Crew 2 GM). Former Canadian international goalkeeper Pat Onstad is Columbus's technical director, VP of soccer operations.
INJURY REPORT: Columbus midfielder Fatai Alashe is recovering from a hip issue that cut his midweek appearance short. TFC captain Michael Bradley (knee) and Brazilian fullback Auro Jr. (ankle bone bruise) are rehabbing back in Toronto.
ON THE MOVE: Toronto has loaned 20-year-old midfielder Noble Okello to HB Koge, a Danish second-division side, for the remainder of 2020 season. Okello made his MLS debut July 21 against New England at the MLS is Back Tournament.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press