Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin knows all too well the damage Alejandro Pozuelo can do.
Curtin watched from the sideline Oct. 3 as his team somehow forgot about the Toronto FC playmaker on a 76th-minute corner when the two teams met in East Hartford. Pozuelo moved leisurely towards goal, seemingly unnoticed by the 10 Union players in the penalty box.
Pozuelo was still walking when Pablo Piatti launched the corner, but picked up speed as he realized he was unmarked at the far post. Chris Mavinga flicked the ball on to Pozuelo, whose header beat a diving Andre Blake. The Philadelphia 'keeper was left sitting on the ground gesticulating at his defence and wondering how one of MLS most dangerous attackers was allowed to go walkabout for the winner.
Toronto and Philadelphia face off again Saturday in a top-of-the-table showdown at Subaru Park. League-leading Toronto (12-2-5) goes into the game undefeated in nine games (7-0-2), a run that includes the 2-1 victory over the Union. Second-place Philadelphia (11-3-5) is unbeaten in four (3-0-1) since the loss to Toronto.
For Curtin, it's a rematch with the best team and best player in Major League Soccer
"They beat us head-to-head and they played a good game," he said. "It was a tight game, a highly contested game. One where we let ourselves down on a restart, lost an assignment on the back post to Pozuelo. But we know we can play with them."
A Philadelphia win and the Union will take over first place on goal difference. A Toronto victory will extend its lead to six points.
Toronto has won six of its last seven, outscoring the opposition 10-4 along the way, with Pozuelo contributing four goals and two assists.
Toronto coach Greg Vanney says the winning goal against Philadelphia was a designed play, with his players looking to congregate at the near post and flick the ball on to Pozuelo at the far post.
"In terms of their marking, that be would on them," he added. "I'm not sure why he was so free."
As for the five-foot-seven Pozuelo, he said he needs to find a good spot in such situations because "I am small."
Entering weekend play, Pozuelo leads the league in assists (10) and is tied for fourth in goals (eight). He is the only TFC player to have started all 19 regular-season games in 2020.
The Spaniard has collected 20 goals and 22 assists in his two MLS seasons, meaning he has played a direct role in 48 per cent of Toronto's goals. And that doesn't count the attacks he has launched or defenders he has distracted on the others.
"He's the best player in the league," said Curtin. "People will talk about his right foot and his left foot and his ability to play a final ball and his ability to shoot from distance with both feet. But what I actually like the most with his game is just how hard he works defensively for a team.
"Gone are the days of the No. 10 that just kind of stood in the centre circle, Carlos Valderrama style. He's a No. 10 that works both sides of the ball, does so many things for them and is obviously the key to us trying to contain them the best we can.
"It starts with him. The more times you can make him give up the ball and play square and backwards, we see that as a real victory. What he's great at is finding space and creating overloads. And he doesn't make wrong decisions on the ball."
Vanney attributes Pozuelo's renewed defensive efforts to the 29-year-old feeling fitter and fresher this year after playing a full season for KRC Genk before joining Toronto in early 2019.
Toronto has lost just two of 29 regular-season games (16-2-11) since a 2-0 defeat at the New York Red Bulls on Aug. 3, 2019.
"They have special players," said Curtin.
"The way they move the ball, the way they create overloads." he added. "The quality they have in players like Piatti and Pozuelo. Michael Bradley coming back into the group now ... A really really strong opponent. They're coached very well by Greg Vanney."
Refreshed after two days back home in Toronto under quarantine, TFC has a healthier roster to choose from Saturday.
Striker Ayo Akinola (hamstring) is back in training and will be evaluated before the team leaves for Philadelphia. Mavinga (hamstring) will likely have to wait until at least the midweek match against New York City FC.
Fullback Justin Morrow has recovered from a calf strain. Defender Eriq Zavaleta (hamstring) trained Friday and could be available for the weekend. Goalkeeper Alex Bono (finger) and forward Jozy Altidore (hamstring) are still a ways away.
Curtin says his team is also getting healthier.
"It's a confident group that still hasn't played our best soccer game, which is something I'm happy with. We want to be peaking at this point of the year."
Philadelphia midfielder Jose Martinez is available after finishing quarantine in the wake of playing for Venezuela. Curtin has injury concerns with defender Matt Real (hamstring) and midfielders Jack McGlynn (knee) and Warren Creavalle (ankle).
TORONTO FC (12-2-5) AT PHILADELPHIA UNION (11-3-5)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET at Subaru Park.
ON A ROLL: Union midfielder Anthony Fontana has scored in the last two games. His six goals this season have come in the last nine games.
TOUGH TO CATCH: Ten of Toronto's league wins this season have been by one-goal margins, including seven 1-0 victories. TFC is 10-2-0 in one-goal games, leading the league with a .833 winning percentage.
HOME STRONGHOLD: Philadelphia is 6-0-0 in league play at Subaru Park this season. Toronto, meanwhile, is 5-1-2 on the road, not counting so-called 'home games' in East Hartford.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2020