Top Takeaways: Why Sporting KC are top of the West and Pozuelo is a joy to watch | Steve Zakuani

Michael Bradley - Toronto FC - August 21, 2020

We saw two of the best teams in MLS earn big wins on Friday night and another club continues to make steady progress in its hope to join them in the not-too-distant future.

Why Sporting KC are atop the West

For my money, LAFC are still the best team in the West, but there is a reason Sporting Kansas City are in first place after their 2-1 road win in Minnesota. They are a well-oiled machine with very few weaknesses and every player seems to know exactly what manager Peter Vermes demands of them. Their greatest strength is the group because even though they have individuals who can produce magic, it’s their ability to be on the same page collectively that makes them hard to beat — they move as one offensively and defensively.

Although Minnesota were always in the game, Sporting were the better team as far as being dangerous in the final third because their attacking players have that bit of quality that Minnesota’s don’t currently have (the seemingly impending arrival of Emanuel Reynoso from Boca Juniors could help things for the Loons).

This difference was best captured in the buildup to the game-winner when Johnny Russell showed great composure to bait Kevin Molino into a challenge before rounding him and putting a ball in the box that was an impossibly difficult one to defend. That little bit of quality — to delay the cross and place it into the most dangerous area — is something Adrian Heath’s men lacked on Friday night and too often their attackers rushed the final ball in the attacking third. Then, on the occasions when the final ball was on point, the finish lacked quality. Close games are often won in the 18-yard box and Sporting’s superiority in that area made all the difference.

The performance you didn’t see coming

Heading into the Minnesota vs Sporting KC game I knew we’d see a passing masterclass in midfield because Osvaldo Alonso was playing. What I didn’t expect to see was his 18-year-old opponent match him stride for stride in that department.

Gianluca Busio did not look like a teenager tasked with anchoring the most important area of the field for Sporting Kansas City, occupying the role typically filled by Ilie Sanchez. Not only was Busio’s passing precise, but his decision making as to how and where to pass was equally impressive (watch reel below). Defensively, he also made his mark with several timely interceptions that a prime Alonso would have been proud of.

Busio would have been my player of the night had Alejandro Pozuelo not decided to put on a show at BMO Field.

My favorite player to watch in all of MLS

Don’t let the 1-0 scoreline fool you: Toronto FC were on a different planet to the Vancouver Whitecaps.

TFC got a lot of solid performances all over the pitch but none were better than Alejandro Pozuelo. He may be my favorite player to watch in the entire league. His full array of skills was on display tonight as he ran the show with his passing, through balls and link-up play. He is legitimately two-footed and his soccer IQ can only be matched by a handful of players in the league.

He played a pass to forward Patrick Mullins midway through the second half that would not only have been his eighth assist in seven games this season, but it would have been the assist of the year so far had the striker given it the finish it deserved.

The Whitecaps sat too deep for most of the night which made it easy for TFC to dominate possession and get their danger men on the ball. When Vancouver did manage to get into dangerous areas, their lack of a Pozuelo was telling. I get the impression the Whitecaps are happy to be a team that sits deep and play on the counter — not a bad strategy in itself, but it definitely didn’t suit their personnel in this game.

Stam is already leaving his mark

Jaap Stam was one of the best defenders of his generation and in his first few games in charge, he is molding FC Cincinnati in his image.

Three clean sheets in their last four games speaks to the strong defensive work being done by his men although they still lack that special something at the other end. Joe Gyau had some exciting moments but their overall play in the final third still lacks imagination. These are still early days in the Stam regime, but he’s saying all the right stuff:

“We’re always looking for more players who we can add and we need to make decisions as well in who’s going to play, who’s going to stay or go,” Stam said postgame. “We’re still looking out for quality. That doesn’t mean the players we have aren’t good enough, but you want to add certain things because you want to have competition within that roster as well so that players don’t feel complacent or feel very comfortable in their role. We need to push each other and they need to understand that it’s not all about being friends or about playing and then going home and enjoying. It’s about work, it’s about showing your ability and showing your quality to eventually come out on top and win games.”

The signs on the pitch, at least defensively, are pointing in the right direction. In the end, they easily could have won all three points against D.C. United had the post been a bit kinder to Jurgen Locadia’s shot.

Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.