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With stars out of the lineup, Toronto FC’s depth to be tested

The Ottawa Fury’s Lance Rozeboom, left, and Toronto FC’s Armando Cooper struggle for the ball during the first half their Canadian championship semi-final soccer match in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Depth is the byword for Toronto FC this season, one the team will have to live up to on Friday against the only MLS team to beat it this season.

With forwards Jozy Altidore, suspended for one game because of five yellow cards, and Sebastian Giovinco (quadriceps strain) both out of the lineup for the game against the Columbus Crew at BMO Field, the Reds’ celebrated deep roster has to make up the difference.

“[Altidore and Giovinco] are guys who, quite frankly, other defences fear a little bit more in the grand scheme of things,” TFC head coach Greg Vanney said on Thursday. “We’ll come with something we also believe can score goals.”

That something will rely heavily on veteran backup Tosaint Ricketts, who has already shown in the season’s early going he can shock the Crew.

Thanks to a quirk in the MLS schedule, Friday’s game will be the third and final game of the season between TFC and Columbus, and will determine the winner of the Trillium Cup, the annual competition between the teams. The Crew won the first game on April 15, scoring twice after the Reds took an early lead, which was the only loss for TFC (7-1-5) this season. Toronto won the second game on May 10 when Ricketts scored twice in the final nine minutes to wipe out a Crew lead.

Since Ricketts, 29, is a different player than both Altidore, a big, physical forward who can roll over defenders, and Giovinco, a sprite with slick feet, TFC’s attack will sport a different look in trying to keep its seven-game undefeated streak alive.

“[Ricketts] is an out-and-out flyer,” Vanney said recently. “He runs into channels, he will always threaten to get into the space behind defensive lines, so it forces back lines to make tough decisions: Whether they track him and run with him or how high they want to play. He could give most guys a five- to 10-yard head start over 40 yards and still beat them.

“[Giovinco], he’s a little different. He handles the ball between the lines and he’ll choose his moments in a crafty way of when to get in behind. But he’s more of a guy who can use the ball at his feet in a different way, play-make as well as create opportunities for himself. [Ricketts] is a runner and a guy who is very aggressive to get into good spots in front of the goal. It’s for the rest of our group to get him the ball in those good spots so he can finish.”

Ricketts, too, will have to change his style. When both Giovinco and Altidore are in the lineup, his specialty is coming into games late and exploiting defenders with his speed.

“In most circumstances, I am running to tired defenders and I will push them to the limit,” Ricketts said. “When you have guys like [Giovinco and Altidore] who are always dragging one or two defenders towards them, I know the space opens up behind and I can exploit defenders with my pace and just basically get to the net and get those knockdowns.

“In soccer there’s a lot of momentum shifts, so when you start a game, you have to go through those momentum shifts, up and down, up and down. But when you’re coming in in the last 15 minutes, it’s usually for a purpose – whether it’s to maintain the result or chase a result.”

An attitude adjustment may also be required on Friday, given TFC’s desultory effort in a 2-1 loss on Tuesday to the Ottawa Fury, which plays in the second-tier United Soccer League, in the first game of the Canadian club championship semi-final. The final game is on Wednesday at BMO Field. Then again, Vanney fielded a lineup full of spare players since it was not an MLS regular-season game.

Vanney said Giovinco is the only player unavailable because of injury. This means defenders Chris Mavinga and Eriq Zavaleta, who did not make the trip to Ottawa, will play on Friday along with midfielder Benoît Cheyrou, who left the Ottawa game after the first half.

Giovinco may make his return on June 3 against the New England Revolution. The Reds will be missing Altidore and midfielder Michael Bradley for that game plus next week’s closer against Ottawa because of national-team duty with the U.S. men’s team.

Vanney said all of the MLS coaches agreed before the season to release their U.S. players for two weeks because of the friendly with Venezuela on June 3. “We hope to make that up somewhere along the line where we can keep [Altidore and Bradley] when normally they would be gone,” Vanney said.