COLUMBUS, Ohio - Its playoff hopes dashed long ago, Toronto FC hoped to break its latest winless streak with a road win over old rival Columbus on Wednesday night.
But the Reds were in no shape to do so. The most porous defence in Major League Soccer conceded an early goal, slogged through the remainder of an ugly first half and ultimately lost to the Crew 2-1.
Afterward, Toronto coach Paul Mariner said a lethargic opening was the culprit.
"It was the opposite of what I asked for in the dressing room," said Mariner. "It was just not being ready to play."
Toronto FC dropped to 5-15-5 and is approaching the brink of playoff elimination in a season lost long ago.
The Reds began the season by losing an MLS record nine consecutive games. They are 0-4-1 in their past five after winning a club-record three consecutive games in July.
Mariner dropped to 4-6-5 since replacing Aron Winter on June 7.
Crew midfielder Eddie Gaven scored in the fourth minute and Frederico Higuain added a goal in the 58th. Toronto forward Luis Silva halved the lead in the 71st during a late surge, but the Reds failed to equalize.
"It hurts to (take) a goal early on," Silva said. "I just think we have to start like we ended."
Many in a sparse weeknight crowd of 10,049 were still finding their seats when Gaven opened the scoring in the fourth minute.
Higuain, a designated player signed last month, had ample time and space at the left edge of the penalty area to feed Gaven at the top of the penalty arc, where the veteran midfielder turned and fired a shot that glanced off Toronto midfielder Andrew Wiedeman.
The redirection was slight, but enough to catch Toronto goalkeeper Freddy Hall flat-footed and give the Crew a quick 1-0 lead.
Higuain made it 2-0 in the 58th when he ended a scramble in the Toronto penalty area with a right-footed shot from near the penalty spot.
It was a disheartening debut for Hall, who was signed July 31 and started in place of Milos Kocic.
Kocic had started every previous MLS game for Toronto this season in place of injured No. 1 Stefan Frei.
"Milos has been absolutely fantastic for us this season," said Mariner. "He's come in and done everything we want him to do. But for various reasons, professional reasons and other reasons, he just needed to rest mentally for maybe a game or so."
Silva put some late-game pressure on Columbus by scoring after Toronto caught the Crew napping on a restart.
Streaking though the centre of the midfield, Silva took a feed from Eric Hassli and finished a breakaway by pulling Crew keeper Andy Gruenebaum off his line and beating him easily with a right-footed finish.
"I'm just gutted that we didn't get the victory," Hall said. "The second half, we played so well. We controlled it and dictated the pace of the game. It's heartbreaking."
Toronto has conceded a league-high 45 goals.
Columbus (9-8-6) is in the midst of a crucial late-season stretch of games. It strengthened its playoff standing in a tight Eastern Conference race.
The Crew also took back the Trillium Cup trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the season series since 2008.
The Crew won the series opener on March 31 at Toronto and has won the trophy in four of the five seasons it has been contested.
Last night's game was originally scheduled for Aug. 11 but was postponed so the Crew could attend the funeral of rookie midfielder Kirk Urso.
Urso, 22, collapsed in a Columbus bar and later died on Aug. 5.