While many see Toronto FC playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo as one of the leading MLS MVP candidates this season, New York City FC coach Ronny Deila is measured in his approval.
"For me it's not about one player," the Norwegian said Tuesday when asked how one limits the damage Pozuelo can do. "He's a good player but he's not that good (a) player. He's not (Lionel) Messi.
"He's really good, but for me when we defend good as a team, we stop him getting the ball in the areas that he's dangerous (in)."
New York City FC (9-8-3) renews acquaintances with Pozuelo and Toronto (12-3-5) in East Hartford on Wednesday.
Toronto is looking to bounce back from an ugly 5-0 loss in Philadelphia on Saturday, a poor performance that saw the end of TFC's nine-game unbeaten run (7-0-2) and dropped it behind the Union on goal difference in the Supporters' Shield race. The New Yorkers are coming off a 3-1 win over Montreal at Yankee Stadium.
Perhaps NYCFC is just tired of talking about Pozuelo. Now in his second MLS season, the 29-year-old Spaniard has feasted on the New Yorkers.
Pozuelo had his way with NYCFC in a head-turning MLS debut in March 2019, scoring twice and adding an assist in a 4-0 victory at BMO Field. And he ended the New Yorkers' season last year, scoring both goals including the 90th-minute winner from the penalty spot in a 2-1 victory at Citi Field in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
Pozuelo has four goals and one assist in four career regular-season matches against NYCFC. Only Sebastian Giovinco, with seven goals and three assists in nine games, has scored more for Toronto against the New Yorkers.
Add in the playoff game and Pozuelo has six goals — including four from the penalty spot — and one assist against the New Yorkers.
If you include Toronto's 3-1 loss to NYCFC in the round of 16 at the MLS is Back Tournament in July — a game that did not count in the regular-season standings — Pozuelo has recorded 21 career shots, 13 of which were on target, in six games against NYCFC. Toronto is 4-1-1 against New York with him in the lineup.
No wonder Deila, who succeeded Domenec Torrent in January, said he is asked about Pozuelo "every time we meet them."
Going into midweek play, Pozuelo leads MLS in assists (10) and is tied for fifth in goals (eight). He is also tied for the league lead in game-winning goals (four). He is the only TFC player to have started all 20 games this season.
The race for first place is now down to the wire.
TFC finishes off the regular season with games against Inter Miami and the New York Red Bulls while Philadelphia hosts Chicago on Wednesday before facing Columbus and New England.
In addition to hoisting a trophy as the team with the best regular-season record, winning the Supporters' Shield comes with a US$150,000 bonus. It also means home-field advantage in the run-up to the MLS Cup final.
NYCFC goes into midweek play fifth in the East, looking to climb into the top four which guarantees a home playoff game.
Toronto may be getting some reinforcements for Wednesday's contest.
Coach Greg Vanney said striker Ayo Akinola, midfielder Jonathan Osorio and centre backs Chris Mavinga and Eriq Zavaleta, who all sat out the Philadelphia game through injury, are back training and could see some action Wednesday.
"We're having to make some tough decisions, as to where guys are at and if they ready," said Vanney. "But guys are anxious, they want to get back, they want to help the team here down the stretch. We're just trying to make sure everyone is good to go physically."
Designated player Pablo Piatti needs more time to recover from a Grade 2 calf strain that could keep him out until the Nov. 8 regular-season finale against the Red Bulls or the start of the playoffs.
Star forward Jozy Altidore, another Toronto DP, is a long-term casualty with a Grade 2 hamstring strain. Brazilian fullback Auro is suspended Wednesday for yellow card accumulation.
NYCFC came on strong in the weekend win over Montreal with three late goals. The victory followed news that one of its players had tested positive for COVID.
There was no shortage of offence in the game with the teams combining for 25 shots (16 on target) and 19 corners. The win ended NYCFC's three-game winless streak (0-2-1).
The Montreal game marked the first start since Sept. 12 for influential NYCFC playmaker Maxi Moralez, who missed seven games with a knee injury.
Defender Maxime Chanot and forward Taty Castellanos return from suspension against Toronto.
NEW YORK CITY FC (9-8-3) VS. TORONTO FC (12-3-5)
Wednesday 7:30 p.m. ET at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
SPOT KICK HISTORY: NYCFC's Sean Johnson is the only MLS 'keeper to stop TFC's Alejandro Pozuelo from the penalty spot. But he has also been beaten four times by Pozuelo. Johnson leads the league in shot-stopping with 74 saves this season
SHOT-MAKERS: New York leads the lead in shots and is tied for first in shots on target. Toronto, in contrast, ranks third and eight, respectively, in those categories. Converting the chances into goals can be a challenge for NYCFC, which ranks 15th in goal-scoring at 1.35 goals a game (TFC is 10th at 1.50 goals a game).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2020