Voices: Steve Zakuani

Wednesday takeaways: What we learned from the midweek action

The first midweek action of the 2021 MLS season offered up seven big games Wednesday, including a top of the table clash in the West and meetings between some preseason favorites in the East. Here are my takeaways.

Cristian Roldan is invaluable to the Sounders

Moments after he scored a game winning screamer at one end, Cristian Roldan was sprinting 50 yards towards his own goal to make a block on Cristian Espinoza who was poised to equalize for San Jose — and therein lies his value to the Sounders.

You can go and spend all the TAM or DP money you want, but you aren’t going to find another player who can do what he does. Let me be clear, he’s not the most talented player on the team — that’s Nico Lodeiro or Raul Ruidiaz — but he has a strong case for most valuable alongside those two and Stefan Frei. No one else can play multiple positions at an extremely competent level. 

There are other midfielders in MLS who I’d take over him when it comes to on the ball ability — Darlington Nagbe and Eduard Atuesta come to mind — but what Cristian does off the ball with his runs in behind and into wide channels, as well as his box to box energy is what makes him special.

I believe he still has a big future with the US men's national team, maybe not as a starter but definitely as a utility player because you essentially get one player who can fill three or four roles at a high level when you call on Roldan. He’s the best SuperDraft pick in Sounders history — had I been able to play longer and injury free I’d probably take myself for that distinction, sorry Cristian — and it’s mind boggling now to think that 15 players went ahead of him in the draft.

He’s the kind of player you want on your team because he’s dependable — rarely does he have a bad game, he’s never injured, and he gives you multiple options in how you can set your team up. He was man of the match by far in this game, he gave absolutely everything and was deserving of being the match winner.

Wide open East

I know it’s very early in the season but I certainly didn’t expect the Eastern Conference standings to look the way they do. Coming into the season, I expected last seasons powerhouses — Columbus, Philadelphia, Orlando and Toronto — to once again lead the way.

But a combination of CCL commitments and injuries have limited those teams in a big way which has opened up the race for the top spots in the East, and while I expect those teams to be fine in the long run — in particular Columbus — teams like New England, NYCFC, RBNY, and even Atlanta, Montréal and Nashville have to view this as an opening that they need to take advantage of. 

Last season, the league leading Philadelphia Union averaged just over two points a game, which would have put them on track for about 70 points in a normal 34 game season but I get the sense that 60 points will be enough to win the East this time around because consistency seems to be eluding the projected top teams.

The secret to success in MLS is the same as it’s always been — win your home games and get as many points as you can away from home. It also helps when your star players show up and win you games, which is what Toronto FC got against Columbus. If Altidore, Bradley, and Pozuelo can stay fit, Toronto should start to shoot up the table.

I have no doubts Columbus will be in the mix because they don’t concede too many and they have a couple of match winners who would walk into most teams. However, I worry a little more about the Union — the loss of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie depleted them even more than I assumed it would — and Orlando because of their tendency, dating back to last season, to lose points from a winning position. 

With all of the above said, the field in the East is wide open and there should be some teams who were hoping to just squeeze into the playoffs, that are now reassessing their goals and aiming for one of the very top spots in the conference.

Quick hits

Can Bjorn Johnsen be Montréal's main man?

CF Montréal ran out deserved winners against Inter Miami behind a brace from Bjorn Johnsen. Their impressive start to the season would have already filled them with confidence, but Johnsen’s goals will now give them hope that at long last, they may have that number nine who can consistently get them goals.

Romell Quioto and others have done well over the past 12 months to chip in with goals, but this team has still been crying out for a player whose only job is to score goals. If that’s who Johnsen turns out to be, then this impressive start could turn into something much more.

Minnesota's must-win win

We finally saw a glimpse of what we thought Minnesota United would be in 2021. It’s tough to call any game in May a must win game, but this is exactly what their home game against the Vancouver Whitecaps was. They needed to stop the bleeding and rebuild some faith in themselves and they were able to do that. They created some good chances, got the clean sheet and the three points, and with another home game at the weekend, they will hope this is the start of the much needed turn around.

Moment of the night

It’s always exciting when an outfield player has to go in goal, and it’s even more exciting when they actually have to make a save. The last two minutes of the Sounders victory over San Jose saw Alex Roldan fill in for the injured Stefan Frei and he actually had to make two or three plays that I’m not sure many field players could have made. All credit to Alex Roldan on his first career clean sheet!