Battle of the big men awaits in Cincy-DC clash
Reports of the death of the 'big number nine' in international football may have been premature and that appears to especially be the case in Major League Soccer.
On Saturday, two teams enjoying success with old-fashioned target men go head-to-head with Eastern Conference joint leaders FC Cincinnati taking on Wayne Rooney's revitalized DC United.
United has won four straight in all competitions after managing just the same amount of victories in 33 prior matches with signs that former England international Rooney is turning around the struggling club.
Key to United's upturn in form has been striker Christian Benteke -- the strong, physical Belgian who joined the club from Premier League team Crystal Palace in August.
The former Aston Villa and Liverpool forward made a slow start to life in the US capital but his five goals so far this season, including his acrobatic bicycle kick in last week's 3-0 win over Charlotte, have been central to the team's revival.
The sight of a team making full use of a target forward is something of a throwback.
Tactical trends in the game, with Spanish style short-passing and 'false nines' or German intense pressing from the front, led many to suggest the days of the 'target man' are over.
But, just as Erling Haaland and others are proving in Europe, there remains value in a center-forward who can lead the line, be an aerial threat and score goals.
Benteke struggled towards the end of his time in England with Palace, scoring just four goals in his final season, but he is looking back to his best in MLS.
Rooney has adjusted his team's style of play to ensure it gets the best out of the 32-year-old Belgian, hitting more crosses from wide and being more willing to play direct football.
"You can smack it into him and he's going to make something happen," DC captain Steve Birnbaum told the Washington Post.
- 'Defenses are scared' -
Midfielder Lewis O'Brien, on loan from Nottingham Forest, says it is clear that opponents are finding it hard to deal with Benteke's physicality.
"Defenses are scared of him. He has his abilities in the air and abilities on the floor. They’re going to double up on him. They're going to try to be aggressive with him, and that opens spaces everywhere," he told the paper.
Cincinnati know all about the value in a big man as 24-year-old Brandon Vazquez had a breakthrough season for the club last year, scoring 18 goals and pushing himself into contention for a US national team spot.
Vazquez has also drawn interest from several European clubs because of his ability to combine mobility, a good touch and power in the air.
Saturday's game in Ohio should be a fascinating encounter between two of the league's form teams and while Cincinnati start as favorites there is a new steel about Rooney's side.
Inter Miami ended a six-game losing streak with a victory at Columbus last week after leaving out off-season signing Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez but may be tempted to recall him to face his former team, Atlanta United.
Martinez scored a prolific 103 goals in a 144 league and playoff games for Atlanta but has yet to find the target for Phil Neville's Miami.
Defending champions Los Angeles FC, fresh from securing their place in the final of the CONCACAF Champions League in midweek with a two-legged win over the Philadelphia Union, are back in action at San Jose on Saturday.
LAFC will face Mexico's Leon later this month for the chance to complete the double of MLS and CONCACAF titles and coach Steve Cherundolo may be tempted to rotate his squad.
Western Conference leaders Seattle Sounders host Sporting Kansas City on Sunday.