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Columbus beats holders Toronto in MLS season opener

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Federico Higuain opened the scoring as Columbus Crew beat Toronto 2-0 in the first game of the 2018 Major League Soccer season © GETTY/AFP/File / Kevin C. Cox

MONTREAL, Canada, Mar 3Toronto FC’s MLS Cup title defence got off to a rocky start Saturday as they fell 2-0 at home to Columbus Crew in the first game of the 2018 Major League Soccer season.

Federico Higuain and Gyasi Zardes on either side of halftime lifted Columbus, who gained a measure of revenge after they were eliminated by Toronto in the Eastern Conference championship tie in last season’s MLS Cup playoffs.

Higuain opened the scoring in the 44th as Milton Valenzuela collected a long diagonal ball from Artur near the endline and sent a cross back for the Argentina veteran to fire home a shot that Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono couldn’t control.

It was a fitting first goal of the season for Higuain, who engineered a series of dangerous Crew attacks in the first half to set the tone for the visitors’ victory.

Zardes, acquired from the Los Angeles Galaxy in an offseason trade, doubled the score less than a minute into the second half, sliding a shot past Bono from a well-timed pass from Pedro Santos.

That proved enough as Toronto saw two chances go begging in the second half, when Sebastian Giovinco’s curling shot in the 65th minute and Ager Aketxe’s long-range effort in the 78th both hit the woodwork.

“Wonderful,” Crew captain Wil Trapp said. “The performance was excellent. The first half was really good, from a possession standpoint, creating chances, defensively being agile.

“We did a wonderful job. And then second half we score early. We lost a little bit of the grip, but the intensity and ability to battle through a tough environment, tough team, was excellent.”

For Toronto, the deflating defeat spoiled a day that started with a pre-game ceremony presenting the three trophies won by Toronto last season: the MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield as the team with the best regular-season record and the Canadian championship trophy.

Giovinco thought that look back to the past may have been detrimental.

“We continued to show the trophies, to think about what happened last year. This is not good,” he said. “We have to think this year is a very difficult year … “We have to change mentality.”

More concerning, Toronto’s Victor Vazquez limped off in the 53rd minute, raising injury worries as Toronto look toward their CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final tie with Mexican side Tigres that begins on Wednesday.

Toronto captain Michael Bradley said the team must regroup.

“There is no place else to look other than at ourselves,” Bradley said. “This is what a lot of days will be like. We put this behind us quickly, get ready for a huge game on Wednesday.”

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