Pozuelo returns to form to help TFC overrun hapless Impact

Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo, right, celebrates with teammate Tsubasa Endoh after scoring during second half MLS soccer action against the Montreal Impact, in Montreal, Saturday, July 13, 2019. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Toronto FC earned a massive 2-0 win on Saturday over the Montreal Impact in another tightly contested rivalry match between the two Canadian sides.

The victory pushes TFC back into the playoff places in the Eastern Conference, four points adrift of the Impact, with 14 and 12 games remaining, respectively, on their regular-season schedules.

Here are four takeaways from Saturday’s affair.

No Piette, no protection

The game’s momentum properly swung after Impact midfielder Samuel Piette exited the match on 60 minutes with an injury.

Piette was protecting Montreal’s defence effectively and was keeping TFC’s advanced players — specifically Alejandro Pozuelo — at bay for the first hour of the match. The 24-year-old won seven of his nine duels, which was crucial to the Impact restricting Toronto to just three shots in the box.

With Piette roaming around the central channels, Pozuelo dropped deep — as he often does — but Toronto’s midfield and attack remained fairly static in the final third.

Samuel Piette’s heat map vs. Toronto FC. (via SofaScore)

Once Piette was replaced by Clement Bahiya, Michael Azira dropped into the heart of midfield, coughed up possession, Pozuelo latched onto a pass from Marky Delgado, galloped towards goal and finished with aplomb from distance.

A 0-0 draw may have been satisfactory for Impact coach Remi Garde given that Ignacio Piatti is still out injured, but Garde’s plan went awry once his Canadian stalwart departed.

Strong debut for Gonzalez

One reason why the Impact struggled to create chances was the performance of Omar Gonzalez at centre-back for TFC.

Gonzalez made his debut for the club on Saturday and produced one of the top individual displays of the night. The U.S. international completed seven recoveries, two tackles and won four aerial duels in his premier appearance.

Next to the faster Chris Mavinga, Gonzalez appeared comfortable because he isn’t known for his agility. However, he makes up for it with his commanding aerial presence and anticipation.

What’s more, Gonzalez was not pressed and harried by the Impact’s front three, so he took advantage by pushing forward to get more involved in TFC’s build-up.

Omar Gonzalez’s heat map vs. Montreal Impact. (via SofaScore)

That could be worth monitoring against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday because their high press may cause fits for Gonzalez.

Impact desperately need a fit Piatti

Take one glance at Montreal’s expected goals (xG) without Ignacio Piatti and it’s evident how desperately the Impact need the Argentine to return from another knee injury.

The Impact are never among the league leaders in xG with Piatti, but it’s even tougher for the team to create quality chances without a player of his calibre.

To make matters worse, the Impact’s leader in expected goals chain (xGC) and expected buildup (xB), Saphir Taider, was moved from the midfield to the left wing to fill in for Piatti.

Taider tends to drift to the left anyways, although his best showings as a winger involve the Algerian cutting inside to operate in a central position at times. He was all over the pitch on Saturday, but it was a problem because Montreal didn’t appear to have a clear plan when it had possession.

Taider’s heat map vs. Toronto FC. (via SofaScore)

It’s also telling that there is only one other midfielder (Samuel Piette) among the Impact’s leaders in xGC and xB.

Impact’s xGC and xB leaders in 2019. (via American Soccer Analysis)

Compare those players to TFC’s leaders, who have four midfielders (Pozuelo, Delgado, Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio) in its top five. Each of them eclipses the 10 xGC and xB barrier, too, whereas Taider is the only member of the Impact to have done so this season.

There was a flurry of chances after the conclusion of the weather delay, although the downpour and litany of Montreal set pieces contributed to this.

Pozuelo thrives in his natural role

Pozuelo was deployed as a centre forward in four of TFC’s last five games. Apart from the 3-2 win over Atlanta United on June 26, the results weren’t too favourable for the Reds.

Pozuelo operating as a No. 9 meant that, whenever he dropped deep into midfield, there was no reference point up front and it hindered TFC’s attack.

He was finally able to start behind a striker, as Jozy Altidore started after returning from the Concacaf Gold Cup. Altidore missed the previous five matches, so he was a welcome sight but especially for Pozuelo.

Pozuelo led all players in touches and created a team-high four chances while attempting and completing more passes than anyone else in the attacking third.

Even with TFC missing players on international duty and through injury, Pozuelo remained one of MLS’s best playmakers. It was just a matter of time until he returned to form.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.