(Reuters) - Toronto FC missed the attacking prowess of banned strikers Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco on Tuesday but a solid display from goalkeeper Alex Bono helped secure a 0-0 draw with Columbus in the first leg of their MLS Eastern Conference final in Ohio.
In the Western Conference final, reigning MLS Cup champions Seattle took the upper hand by beating hosts Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the first leg.
With Giovinco and Altidore serving one-game suspensions, top-seeded Toronto were left to contain the Columbus attack and Bono proved up to the challenge, most notably when he was tested repeatedly late on to keep his clean sheet intact.
Bono made a number of key saves but none more important than his reflex stop in the 85th minute off a point-blank effort from Ghanaian defender Harrison Afful, with the rebound falling to Gambian forward Kekuta Manneh, whose shot was blocked.
“Anytime you go on the road in the playoffs your ‘keeper is going to have to come up with something, at least one,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney told reporters.
“And Alex was good today. He was cutting out things behind their back line when they were trying to whip in crosses. Makes a great save. He was good today.”
Without Giovinco and Altidore, who together accounted for nearly half of Toronto’s goals in the regular season, the visitors adopted a safety-first approach against fifth-seeded Crew.
Altidore missed the game after receiving a red card for violent conduct during a fracas at halftime in the second leg of the East semi-final while Giovinco’s ban stems from an accumulation of yellow cards.
Both players will be eligible to return for the second leg on Nov. 29 in Toronto.
Toronto did have a chance to open the scoring in the 43rd minute but Canadian forward Tosaint Ricketts’ header from the center of the box missed to the right.
Moments later Columbus nearly went in front through Norwegian forward Ola Kamara but his close-range header missed the target.
Columbus stepped up the pressure after the break but only truly tested Bono in the latter stages of the match.
“This is one of the best defensive efforts we had all season and it’s really something for us to build on. A huge confidence builder for us going forward,” the American goalkeeper said.
“Didn’t get the goal we would’ve hoped for but a nil-nil draw here is not so bad taking it back to Toronto.”
Second-seed Seattle scored the all-important away goal early on when Swedish midfielder Gustav Svensson sent a header past Joe Willis from a Nicolas Lodeiro corner in the 11th minute.
Seattle had the chance to double their lead in the 29th minute when Jalil Anibabe pushed Joevin Jones to the ground in the area, only for Willis to save Lodeiro’s penalty kick.
Anibabe was red carded for the push in the box and it did not take long for Seattle to take advantage as American forward Will Bruin headed home a cross from Jones in the 42nd minute.
Seattle host the return leg on Nov. 30.
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by John O'Brien/Peter Rutherford