East's top two teams square off
Two of 2020's top clubs go head-to-head for the first time this season in what will be a telling measurement of where these two sides stand going into the homestretch.
Unbeaten in six straight, Columbus Crew SC (9-1-3, 30 pts.) brings balance, depth, and the proven ability to win regardless of squad rotation, while Toronto FC comes in riding the unquestioned swagger of MVP-frontrunner Alejandro Pozuelo.
There's no doubt Pozuelo is the key to Toronto FC's success, and as they've shown recently they don't necessarily need the likes of Michael Bradley when you have a cornerstone player like Pozuelo who is tied for the most direct goal actions (goals + assists) in the league with 13.
Pozuelo leads the league in assists (8) and averages one "big chance" created per match, according to Opta, meaning he creates a goal per match.
With TFC Academy product Ayo Akinola producing six goals in just five starts and Jozy Altidore getting back into the mix with a goal in his last three starts, Sunday's "road match," which will take place in East Hartford, Conn., is once again another playoff-like test.
"We're definitely going to use this game as an opportunity to grow and measure ourselves a little bit," said Head Coach Caleb Porter.
While Pozuelo will draw eyes, a quick note about Akinola – the 20-year-old's goal-scoring pace is unlike any other in the league for someone his age, as no other player under the age of 22 has scored more than 3 times in 2020.
Compared to Crew SC's nine different opponents this season, Toronto's 7-2-4 record (25 pts.) has accumulated against only six opponents, with seven of those matches being against Montreal or Vancouver, both of whom currently hover around the playoff line.
Sunday's match will certainly reveal a lot about where each team is heading into October, and with only about a month and a half left in the regular season, it could set up a very interesting final few weeks when it comes to Supporters' Shield scenarios as this will be the only regular-season meeting between the two clubs.
Statistically, this Toronto side has shown they are capable of consistent scoring and limiting teams' chances -- the question remains about if they can do it consistently against teams not based in Montreal or Vancouver.
TFC has only faced eight more shots on target than Columbus this season but conceded nine more goals (14). The only opponent Toronto and Columbus have shared this season so far is New York City FC, with Columbus going 1-1-0 and Toronto going 2-1-0 with an even three goals-for and three goals-against.
The Reds are tied for first in big chances created (30) and rank second in shots on target (82), but they suffer from a below-average conversion rate (13.46 percent) with 21 goals scored. Comparatively, Crew SC has compiled 22 goals on 24 big chances and holds a top-10 conversion rate of 18.8 percent.
As explained prior, Pozuelo is the fulcrum for their production. On the other side of the pitch, however, lays a three-headed beast in Lucas Zelarayan, Pedro Santos, and Gyasi Zardes, who have scored 9 of the Crew's last 10 goals while Zardes provided the assist to Fatai Alashe on the one outlier.
Here's an interesting offensive stat concerning Zelarayan and Zardes specifically:
In just nine appearances since joining Columbus from Tigres UANL this past offseason, Zelarayan is averaging 1.09 non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes, while Zardes is averaging 1.06 in 13 appearances.
Prior to Wednesday's match, which featured both Zelarayan and Zardes in the Starting XI, the duo ranked in the top-six league-wide in the category:
Non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 leaders right now (min. 400 minutes). 6 Americans in the top ten, wonder when that last happened. pic.twitter.com/yomKasMNhj— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) September 21, 2020
Simply put, the final results speak for themselves, as Columbus is 7-0-2 this regular season when both Zardes and Zelarayan appear in the match together.
You combine that with Santos's recent stretch – three goals and four assists in the last five games – and it's sure to be an entertaining match-up come Sunday with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. ET from Rentschler Field [(FOX Sports Ohio, FOX Sports GO App, 971TheFan.com (English); ColumbusCrewSC.com (Spanish)].