Three years ago, had you asked any Toronto sports fan what he or she thought of the city of Columbus, Ohio, the answer would have been a shrug. Maybe a mention of how nice it is to see Rick Nash scoring goals for the Blue Jackets or Ohio State football.
Now, for a large section of Toronto sports fans, Columbus is the black hole.
When Toronto FC goes to Ohio's capital, the atmosphere is electric. The league's most loyal supporters go to the most intimidating stadium on the American side of the border. There have been numerous arrests and incidents -- including a YouTube video of Columbus police using a Taser on what appeared to be a restrained fan when the two teams met in March.
But, no matter how hostile things get off the pitch, TFC has yet to beat the reigning league champs.
Even though it's rarely ever sold out, Crew Stadium is an intimidating place to play. Columbus hasn't lost at home since June 7... of last season. So, the odds of TFC going there and winning tomorrow night are pretty long.
"It's very tough to play there, but records are made to be broken," TFC midfielder Carl Robinson said. "They make it an intimidating place. There's a corner of supporters that make a lot of noise, and they know they like to play. At home, they play a certain way, and they get on a roll."
Intimidating is an understatement. Last season, Crew fans were censured by the MLS for raining racist chants and hurling objects at African-born members of the New England Revolution. And, there was a brawl between West Ham fans and Crew fans when the English side played a friendly in Columbus. Trouble doesn't only happen when TFC comes to town.
But, this time around, TFC isn't expected to have a large travelling contingent. Many fans have had enough.
"I was on the message boards, communicating with a lot of fans, and I got the feeling that there won't be as many fans going down as there were last game," TFC fan Bill Harris, 29, who will be driving down to Columbus tomorrow from his Windsor home, said.
But he isn't worried.
"Everyone saw the videos of the pepper spraying or Tasering," Harris said. "I'm not too concerned about it. You're always going to get rowdy elements in most sporting events."
Robinson said that the fact there will be less red in Crew stadium might help TFC.
"The fans have come here in droves and we haven't won," he said.
So, maybe, if they stay away, TFC might succeed.
Defender Nana Attakora is unavailable tomorrow after he limped out of Wednesday's friendly against River Plate with a hamstring problem. Striker Ali Gerba, who has scored 15 times for Canada in 28 games, is hoping to get his first MLS start.
"It's the decision of the coach. But I just want to play," Gerba said.
After starting the season off by getting just two points in its first four matches, Columbus is once again playing like a champion.
The Crew has lost only once in its last 14 games.
While the game will finish up the MLS season series between the Crew and the Reds, it doesn't mean they are done with each other in 2009. If Toronto can beat Puerto Rico in its CONCACAF Champions League qualifying series that begins next Wednesday, the Reds would be placed in a group alongside ... the Crew.