Voices: Steve Zakuani

Saturday takeaways: What we learned from Week 15's action

We saw an in-form Minnesota United record another impressive win, while Ricardo Pepi made history for FC Dallas. In the Eastern Conference, Toronto FC continued their resurgent run and CJ Sapong had himself a night for Nashville SC.

Here’s what we learned from Saturday’s Week 15 action.

Minnesota complete turnaround?

It’s hard to imagine now, but not too long ago, many of us were scratching our heads wondering when Minnesota United were going to show up to the 2021 season. Few teams entered the year with as much hope and expectation as the Loons, but after they lost their first four games, including a thumping 4-0 defeat in Seattle on opening night, it looked like the high expectations we had for them were severely misplaced.

Fast forward to their latest result – a 2-1 come-from-behind win against the Portland Timbers at Allianz Field – and now we're talking about one of the most in-form teams in MLS. They’ve lost once in their last 10 games, taking 21 points in the process. They’re above the playoff line in the Western Conference (sixth place), a far cry from questions of facing an insurmountable early hole.

So what has changed between now and then?

First, the Loons stopped leaking goals so easily. They’ve conceded 17 goals this season, and 10 of those came in their first four games. They’re now conceding less than a goal a game, a stretch that includes five clean sheets. That defensive improvement ensures that even though they’re yet to fully explode offensively, they haven’t really needed to because one or two goals have usually been enough to get the three points.

They’ve also received timely performances from key players at key times. It’s been Robin Lod in the past week, but the likes of Franco Fragapane and Adrien Hunou have also come up big when needed. And maybe most importantly, after a slow start to the season, Emanuel Reynoso is slowly rounding into form. He was sensational in last season’s playoff run and struck up a great understanding with now-Columbus Crew winger Kevin Molino. Bebelo has three assists in his last five matches, but his game is one that goes beyond the stats. If you watch the former Boca Juniors man, you’ll see that he’s more active, more involved and finding better spaces than he did earlier this season. It’s impossible to overstate how critical the No. 10’s form will be to Minnesota’s ongoing aspirations.

They’ve alternated between 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formations for most of this good stretch. Regardless of the formation, what they’ve gotten right is that every player seems to know the role expected of them within the team structure. As a former player, I can’t stress enough how much of a difference it makes to go onto the pitch with a crystal clear idea of what your coach expects from you. From the outside looking in, it appears that every player knows when they need to press, when to sit back, when to open up and when to keep it tight as well.

Of course there’s still room for improvement – 15 goals in 14 games may not be enough to continue this ascent and catch the very top teams in the West – but after losing their first four opening games, head coach Adrian Heath couldn’t have scripted the response any better.

It’s possible that the horrible start will permanently affect their chances at a top seed, but this team has to be a lock for the playoffs. Any week that includes wins over Seattle and Portland is not only a good week, but also a clear sign that we're talking about a team that’s finally living up to the lofty expectations that surrounded them back in March and April.

Pepi's big statement

There hasn’t been much for FC Dallas fans to smile about this season, but Saturday night’s 4-0 win over the LA Galaxy brought more than just three precious points – it also featured the youngest player to score a hat trick in MLS history at 18 years and 196 days.

Coming into this game, Pepi had scored in his last three appearances at Toyota Stadium, a run that included a brace against New England a month ago. With that in mind, we perhaps shouldn’t be too surprised that he found himself on the scoresheet in front of the home fans once again, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be impressed by how he did it.

His first goal was well-taken from the run to the first touch, and then required a calm finish that he made look much simpler than it actually was. His third goal wasn’t lucky, he did what you're taught to do – hit the ball hard and low – but it involved a measure of good fortune as LA goalkeeper Jonathan Bond got a hand to it. By that point, he earned any measure of luck that came his way.

For me, Pepi’s second goal was the pick of the bunch and really stood out because of how instinctive and decisive it was. After his header rebounded off the defender, there was no hesitation, no thought of taking an extra touch and no attempt at being too cute with the finish – he dispatched the ball ruthlessly into the corner before the 'keeper had a real chance to react. It’s the kind of goal that I'm used to seeing Josef Martinez or Raul Ruidiaz score. Good strikers have a one-track mind when they get in and around the 18-yard box. It’s one of their best traits and Pepi seems to possess that in abundance.

It’s hard to keep track of all the up-and-coming homegrown stars across MLS, though it always makes sense to look at FC Dallas due to their commitment to youth. Despite taking that approach, I hadn’t heard much about Pepi coming into this season. After his hat trick, every soccer fan in the country has heard of him thanks to the incredible piece of history he just made.

Quick hits

Toronto's interim-coach bump

I have no idea why every single team that changes their coach midseason ends up going on a good run. I’m sure it doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens often enough that you start wondering why those same players couldn’t seem to buy a result before the coaching change. I have my theories, but we’ll save them for another article.

The latest team to benefit from a change in the dugout is Toronto FC, who have now gone four games unbeaten after defeating Chicago 2-1 on Saturday night. It certainly wasn’t pretty – they were outshot by a ratio of 4-to-1, out-possessed and conceded 13 corner kicks – but right now it doesn’t have to be. It’s just about the Reds getting results and that’s what they're doing under interim manager Javier Perez.

Truth be told, there’s still a big hole for them to climb out of should they get anywhere near the playoffs – they're seven points below the East's line at 13 points in 15 games. But as the likes of Alejandro Pozuleo, Jozy Altidore and Yeferson Soteldo slowly find their best form, I don’t see why this four-game resurgence can’t turn into a 10-15 game run in which they only lose a couple of times. Time will tell if they’ve left it too late, but for now, it’s impressive to see them getting results despite being nowhere near their best.

Sapong's fine form

For much of their two-year MLS existence, Nashville have been a pragmatic attacking team. Any success they’ve had in games usually came down to their extremely stingy defense. But their attack has exploded in recent weeks, especially at home. They recently put five past Chicago, and now they just hit FC Cincinnati for a 3-0 win.

The form of CJ Sapong – four goals and two assists in his last five – has been a huge bright spot for Gary Smith's team. With two goals and an assist, his fingerprints were all over their latest promising night at Nissan Stadium, one that has them second in the Eastern Conference standings and just trailing New England.

Knowing that Nashville have also invested in Ake Loba as a Designated Player, there’s certainly pressure on Sapong to perform because, right or wrong, as soon as his form dips, it’ll be very hard to get back into the team. That need to perform is bringing the best out of the veteran forward right now, and if the ex-CF Monterrey striker becomes who we think he can, then Nashville’s newfound scoring prowess could be a thing that’s here to stay.