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Defending MLS champ Toronto FC opens against Crew

Toronto FC might be the reigning MLS Cup champion but rest assured, the club won't be resting on its laurels.

It will be out to prove as much when it hosts the Columbus Crew on Saturday afternoon at BMO Field in a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Championship to kick off the 2018 MLS season.

The 2017 season was a record-setting one for Major League Soccer's first Canadian franchise. Toronto's 69 points established an MLS mark to earn the Supporters' Shield, becoming the first of the three Canadian clubs to do so. Its 20 wins tied the league record and its 74 goals equaled the second-best total in MLS history.

Toronto FC, already a favorite to repeat, bolstered its roster in the month leading up to the opener with the additions of Dutch international defender Gregory van der Wiel, 22-year-old right back Auro Alvaro da Cruz Junior and Spanish midfielder Ager Aketxe.

And while some might be hesitant to tinker with team chemistry after historic success, Toronto FC trusts in what it has in the room.

"The strength of our group in every way is incredible," captain Michael Bradley told the Toronto Star. "When you have new guys coming in, I think across the board they get welcomed with open arms.

"When new guys come in they feel that, and they understand that they're coming into a team, and into a club, that has high standards in every way. ... They realize quickly that that's fun: to be in a team, to be at a club, where now the bar is set so high, to compete for every trophy, to win every game."

Toronto enters the match with its game legs already under it, coming off an on-aggregate victory Tuesday in the round of 16 of the CONCACAF Champions League.

Those matches allowed Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter to get an early look at the season-opening opponent.

"I think until someone else proves otherwise that they're the team to beat," he told The Columbus Dispatch.

Berhalter's squad will be trying to do just that at a pitch on which it has lost three straight (regular season and playoffs) and was outscored 7-1.

After finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference last season, the Crew are hoping familiarity with the coach's two systems and 18 returning players will lead to more consistency in 2018. They've seen some early positive returns on that front, going 3-0 en route to winning the Carolina Challenge Cup preseason tournament.

"We didn't delve into a whole new system," Berthalter told The Dispatch. "There was less (teaching), but we also had new guys we needed to integrate and because of that we wanted to keep it as simple as possible and really focus on our core principles and how we want to play, and we've been doing that."

But while the roster boasts many returnees, the Crew will try to make up for the departures of Ola Kamara and Justin Meram, its top two attackers in 2017. Columbus is hoping forward Gyasi Zardes, acquired from the LA Galaxy in January, can help fill the void and return to the form that helped him enjoy a breakout season in 2014 when he scored 16 goals.

Updated March 1, 2018

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