Head coach Caleb Porter says it is "no coincidence" Gyasi Zardes has hit a hot streak of form as Supporters' Shield-leading Columbus Crew get set to face Minnesota United.
United States international Zardes has been directly involved in 12 goals for the injury-hit Columbus this term, including four goals and two assists in his last three games.
After registering 19 and 13 times in 2018 and 2019 respectively, Porter is not surprised that Zardes is continuing to score freely given the amount of time he spends training.
"Any top striker I've been around, there's no coincidence why they're good at scoring goals," Porter said. "They spend a lot of time working on it, that's no different with Gyasi.
"Those little finishes, those little runs seem simple, but to be able to perfect those teams and execute game in, game out, you have to practice it."
The Crew have been even more impressive in a defensive sense this season, conceding just four times in their opening 12 matches and keeping four clean sheets at home.
Minnesota, who squandered a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Houston Dynamo last time out, are the next side tasked with halting Zardes and breaching the hosts' backline.
Entering the game with just two wins in eight matches, Loons coach Adrian Heath admits it has been tough keeping his players motivated.
"I think it's the most difficult year I've ever had in football," Heath said. "When you consider I've been doing this probably the best part of 45 years since I left school, it's a really difficult year.
"There's so much going on. So many things we have to consider. So many things we have to talk about. It has been difficult at times to keep everybody focused on what we do."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Columbus Crew - Lucas Zelarayan
All eyes are on Zardes but a lot of his success has been down to the partnership formed with winter acquisition Zelarayan. The midfielder scored the winner against Philadelphia Union earlier this month before missing the next two games with an injury. After making his return against Nashville, he will be looking to pick up from where he left off.
Minnesota United - Kei Kamara
Minnesota have scored nine goals in their last four matches and their attack is about to become even stronger following the arrival of Kei Kamara. The Loons signed Kamara, who is the division's fifth all-time goalscorer, from Colorado Rapids at the weekend and he is expected to be in contention for his debut against the Crew.
KEY OPTA FACTS
- Minnesota United knocked the Crew out of the MLS is Back Tournament on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the round of 16 with Robin Lod scoring for Minnesota United and Gyasi Zardes netting for the Crew. Zardes scored his only career hat-trick in the Loons' only previous visit to MAPFRE Stadium, a 3-2 Columbus win in October 2018.
- Only the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2010 (3 goals conceded) have allowed fewer goals through 12 matches of an MLS season than Columbus (4) this year. The Crew are the second team in MLS history to keep clean sheets in their first five home matches of a season (NE Revs - 2005) and the only team to win all five.
- Minnesota United drew 2-2 with Houston on Saturday despite going two-goals up in the match. It was the first time in the Loons' MLS history that they've failed to win an MLS match in which they held a multi-goal lead, having won the first 23 times they were up two or more.
- Gyasi Zardes has scored in three straight matches, netting four goals in those contests. The last Crew player to score in four straight league matches was Ola Kamara in August-September 2017.
- Minnesota United acquired Kei Kamara, who sits fifth on the MLS all-time scoring list, this week in a trade. Kamara had already scored 86 regular season goals before Minnesota United played their first MLS match in 2017.