Voices: Steve Zakuani

Saturday Takeaways: What we learned from Week 21's action

The Seattle Sounders capped off a great week with a dramatic win in Ohio, Inter Miami’s recent good run continued, while three Western Conference teams – LAFC, Portland and Houston – continue to struggle.

Contrasting fortunes for 2020 MLS Cup finalists

If you were surprised by the Sounders' comeback win against the Columbus Crew, then you haven’t been paying attention. This is what this team does – when the chips are down, they find a way to dig deep and defy the odds. Earlier in the season, they went on a historic unbeaten run and barely conceded a goal from open play despite missing several key players and having to figure out a new formation on the fly.

In the past week alone, the Sounders have won three away games, scored eight goals from six different players and reclaimed the top spot in the West. All of the above is impressive, and yet I still don’t think they’ve played their best football of the season.

It’s hard not to see Seattle improving even more now that Nico Lodeiro is back, Stefan Frei and Nouhou are on the way back, and the likes of Raul Ruidiaz, Joao Paulo and Cristian Roldan are as consistent as ever. It’s difficult to pinpoint any true weaknesses in this team, especially when you factor in their ability to win games that they haven’t necessarily dominated or controlled.

Pound for pound, I see them as the top team in the West and with wins like today's dramatic 2-1 result against Columbus, their confidence and expectations will only grow. I expect this team to get north of 65 points. Whether that will be enough to win the Supporters' Shield remains to be seen, but I’m almost certain it’ll be enough to win the Western Conference.

Their opponent in last year's MLS Cup Final is enduring a torrid stretch in which they seem to be finding new ways to lose. For a team built on defensive resilience, and in the image of a coach who preaches discipline, compactness and toughness, it’s strange to see Columbus on a six-match losing streak. In the long run, I suspect the Crew will be OK, but if they're to do anything this season, they’ll have to do it the hard way. It looks like, if they do make the postseason, they’ll be a lower seed in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and will need to win multiple games on the road.

Why do I think they’ll ultimately be OK? Because a team with Lucas Zelarayan, Gyasi Zardes, Jonathan Mensah and Darlington Nagbe, coached by a two-time MLS Cup winner, is surely too good to keep struggling like this. Champions don’t usually become bad teams overnight, and the MLS season is a long one.

There are many issues for Columbus to address, chief among them being their lack of goals. Zardes isn’t as prolific as in recent seasons, they managed just two shots on target against Seattle and are just about averaging a goal per game. Finding a way to unlock their offensive game has to be priority No. 1 and, should they do so, they'll make the playoffs. At that point, I think we’ll see a team that can still be dangerous in a one-off elimination game.

Have Miami turned a corner?

Not much has gone right for Miami on or off the pitch since entering MLS in 2020, but after their 3-1 win against Toronto FC, it’s fair to wonder if they’ve finally turned the tide and figured out how to be successful. I’m on the fence about whether they can sustain this mini-revival, but their fans should take pride in seeing a team that has shown good spirit and character to not quit and instead fight back and reignite hopes of a postseason run.

The stats around their recent form are actually quite impressive. Since losing 5-0 to New England a month ago, they’ve only lost once in seven – they’ve won four straight at home and have picked up 14 of their 22 points during this stretch. Rodolfo Pizarro is finally living up to the billing. And head coach Phil Neville is showing good tactical flexibility as he alternates between 3-4-3, 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1 formations in a bid to get his best players on the pitch and in their best positions.

If this team can get a good result in the Heineken Rivalry Week derby against Orlando this coming Friday (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), they’ll be firmly in the playoff conversation and prove that they're truly headed in the right direction after a very rough start to the season.

Quick hits

Houston's winless run needs to end

Quite unbelievably, Saturday's 2-2 draw with Texas Derby rival FC Dallas means Houston have not won any of their last 14 games. They’re not a team that I expected to compete for a top-four seed in the West, but their poor form is still a big shock to me. On paper, they have a squad that should be competitive in MLS, yet they’ve currently have too many players underperforming.

With that said, there are two silver linings I can offer Dynamo fans. First, the next three games are at home and that should offer motivation to finally get back to winning ways and embark upon a mini-run. Second, despite their struggles, they're only seven points outside of a playoff spot. With 13 games to go, this team needs to close the book on what’s transpired and keep the focus only on trying to get above that red line.

Which underachiever should be more worried: LAFC or Portland?

Two teams who’d have harbored ambitions of fighting for the top seeds in the West continue to drop points and slip further away from where they want to be. Both LAFC and Portland are having similar issues defensively with their inability to keep clean sheets. Both have zero shutouts in their last eight games and have a combined two wins during that span as well.

They currently sit eighth and ninth in the table, and in my opinion, neither one of them will finish higher than fifth place. Whose issues run deeper? Who has a better chance at rescuing their disappointing season? Those are tough questions to answer but as of right now, I think Portland leak too many goals – two per game – and with their next three games all away from home, things may get worse before they get better.