Voices: Steve Zakuani

Saturday Takeaways: What we learned from Week 23's action

Orlando moved back into second place in the East, Vancouver won their fourth straight game and Colorado are closing in on the West's top spot.

Here’s what we learned from Saturday’s Week 23 action.

Daryl Dike shows "special" qualities

Since being on the wrong end of a 5-0 drubbing to New York City FC back in late July, Orlando have gone seven games unbeaten, notching three wins during that stretch. Their latest result, a hard-fought 3-2 triumph over Columbus, ensured they kept pace with Nashville SC as both teams chase New England atop the Eastern Conference standings.

For much of the season, Nani has provided the offensive spark Orlando have needed. With nine goals and seven assists, he’s been worth every penny Orlando are paying him, but I have a feeling that his play alone won’t be enough for the club to hang onto second place and really make some noise in the postseason. This is where Daryl Dike comes in. If he can maintain anything close to his best form, as good as Nashville and NYCFC have been, I think that could be the edge Orlando need to cement the No. 2 seed.

The flirtation with an overseas move after his loan to Barnsley and an unfortunate injury suffered with the US men’s national team at the Gold Cup have contributed to a stop-start season for Dike. Even still, he’s still managed three goals and two assists through six games. The reason he can be such a key player is simple – his skill set is unique. Not only is he fast and strong, but he has a high soccer IQ that allows him to link up well with technical players like Nani. His off-ball running and movement are very good, and when he gets in front of goal he can keep his cool and find the back of the net. With Dike at his very best, opposing defenses can’t shift all of their attention to Nani because they must be aware of the 21-year-old’s threat at all times.

The goal he scored against Columbus is not one you typically associate with traditional target forwards, which is another reason why his unique ability can be a massive game-changer for Orlando. When the likes of Giovinco, Obafemi Martins, David Villa, or Landon Donovan scored after a mazy dribble in MLS, we’d get excited but also expect it — it’s what they do.

When someone with the size and power of Dike does it, it’s important to realize and acknowledge just how special that is. The close control, patience and ruthless finish were a clear reminder of the importance he brings to Oscar Pareja’s team. If he stays fit and can take some of the load off of Nani, Orlando won’t only finish the season really strongly — they’ll be a team that nobody wants to face in the postseason.

What's changed for Vancouver?

I obviously watch a lot of Seattle Sounders games, and one of the things that stuck out to me this season was the performance Vancouver Whitecaps FC gave at Lumen Field back on June 26. The Whitecaps came to town during the Sounders’ record-setting start to the season, at a point when they hadn’t conceded from open play and genuinely looked impenetrable at times defensively.

The Whitecaps generated more problems than I had seen any team cause the Sounders up to that point, especially their two wingers on the day – Cristian Dajome and Deiber Caicedo. They were dangerous on the counter, created some good chances and Lucas Cavallini was a nuisance all afternoon. I couldn’t figure out why they were struggling for goals and results, but I felt certain that at some point they would figure it out and start winning games. That point in time has arrived. After Saturday’s 2-1 win over Austin FC, we’re now talking about a team that has gone 10 unbeaten – five wins and five draws – and sits just one spot outside of the playoffs.

So, what has changed? They were creating chances and were dangerous in the final third earlier in the season. Now they’re just more efficient – they recently scored four goals from five shots on target in a 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake. Different players have also stepped up big when needed, and they’re at four straight wins with two coming after parting was with Marc Dos Santos. Credit goes to interim coach Vanni Sartini for pushing the project forward.

There are two key areas where Vancouver have improved tremendously. First, they’ve buttoned up on defense. They’ve conceded 10 goals in their last 10 games, whereas they were averaging two goals against per game in the 10 before that. The second thing is the arrival of Ryan Gauld. He was impressive in his early substitute appearances, and he’s been even more impressive in his three straight starts, two in MLS and one in the Canadian Championship.

Not to put too much pressure on Gauld, but the last two left-footed playmakers to have a serious midseason impact were Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro and Minnesota’s Emanuel Reynoso. Both of those guys led their teams to impressive regular-season finishes, and one (Lodeiro) even led his team to an MLS Cup win. If Gauld’s influence ends up being half as good as what Lodeiro’s has been, then Whitecaps fans are in for a treat.

Rapids stay rising

They left it late, but the Colorado Rapids did what they’ve been doing well all season long: They found a way to win. Their 1-0 victory at San Jose means that if they win their game in hand, they’ll go to first place in the Western Conference standings – they’re already in first on PPG (1.95).

For a long time, I viewed Colorado as a team that was coming, but it’s fair to say that they have definitely arrived. They have no bonafide superstar or out-and-out goalscorer – Michael Barrios leads the way with five – but it’s been a real team effort.

What has impressed me most is their recent away form in a league where it’s notoriously tough to win on the road. Wins at Austin, Houston, LA Galaxy and San Jose show us that Robin Fraser’s team can go on the road and win when it counts. The Rapids aren’t coming – they are here.

Improved Miami defense

They say that defense wins championships, and while Inter Miami may not lift any silverware this season, an improved defense will prove key to possibly reaching the playoffs. Outside of Gonzalo Higuain, they simply don’t have enough goals in the team, and so they must stop them from going in at the other end.

That may just be the message that head coach Phil Neville has been preaching, as his team just recorded their first back-to-back shutouts after their late 1-0 win at FC Cincinnati. It’s important to give credit where it’s due, and after changing formations quite often throughout the season, it seems Neville’s unlocked the defensive stability they so desperately needed since going to three at the back in what seems like a permanent move. Getting extra bodies in midfield has provided cover for the backline while allowing them to win more midfield battles than they did earlier in the season.

Miami are now four points behind D.C. United (with a game in hand) for the East’s final playoff spot. They’re on the outside looking in and will need to maintain this defensive form to keep rising.