The Round of 16 has come and gone, giving us our fill of bunkered defenses, goalkeeper mistakes, and penalty shootout. Only eight teams are left to fight for $1.1 million and a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League. Here’s what to watch for in this round.
Philadelphia Union vs Sporting KC
Thursday, July 30 | 7:00 PM Central | ESPN, ESPN Deportes
Why the Union will win: The Union have really struggled to create chances this tournament. Their 0.67 xG per match is the worst in the competition, and of the teams left in the competition, only Minnesota United is scoring less than them. A lot of this comes down to Brendan Aaronson. He was expected to be the main chance creator for Philadelphia, and was hyped as one of the best young players going into the tournament (I picked him to win the award). Aaronson has struggled to get involved at times, positioning himself almost as a third forward at times and not coming deep enough to really influence the game.
They’ve been much better defensively with José Martínez, who plays strictly as a no. 6, shielding the back four and breaking up play. With Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro rounding out the diamond, this midfield carries the water for Philadelphia. It’s not usually fun to watch, but it’s a nightmare to play against.
‘Keeper Andre Blake has been a huge difference maker for Philly, standing on his head at times to keep them alive in the competition. He’s effectively picked up the slack for their poor attack and have won the Union several games they shouldn’t have. With that being said, their opponents this round are an entirely different story.
Why Sporting will win: Sporting just shellacked for 90 minutes in their Round of 16 matchup, taking 36 shots and somehow not finding the back of the net. Part of this was ‘keeper Thomas Hasal playing the game of his young career, but part of it was really wasteful finishing from Sporting’s attack. For as electric as Alan Pulido has been, he’s scored just once this tournament, and that was from the penalty spot. Only Diego Rossi for LAFC has a higher xG total than Pulido, who hasn’t yet translated endeavor and flair into goals.
The good news is Sporting have played some of the best soccer of the tournament. Without scoring the goals himself, Pulido has pitched in two assists, often operating as a false nine to drop deep and link play, with their wingers and midfielders bombing forward to fill the space.
Sporting’s midfield will have their hands full. However, they should be able to create enough chances to secure a win in regulation. Then again, Andre Blake could put on a show once again.
Prediction: Sporting wins this one 1-0.
Orlando City vs LAFC
Friday, July 31 | 7:00 PM Central | FS1, Fox Deportes, TUDN
Why Orlando will win: Orlando look like a new team under Óscar Pareja. They’ve been really good on the ball, top to back filled with players comfortable in possession. Chris Muller has been one of the best players in the tournament from a g+ perspective, Nani has been productive, and Tesho Akindele has chipped in with goals in the absence of Dom Dwyer.
Robin Jansson has been key to Orlando’s possession-based approach. The Swede only trails Lala Abubakar of Columbus in xPass among centerbacks. He doesn’t always force a vertical pass, but he keeps the ball rotating and is really smart in how he creates overloads. He’ll be key to getting past LAFC’s press.
Why LAFC will win: LAFC took American soccer twitter by storm last time out. They absolutely smothered Seattle, pressing the hell out of them relentlessly.
Bob Bradley’s side was reminiscent of a 2017 Red Bulls side, swarming the ball and putting heavy, heavy pressure on Seattle’s centerbacks.
It worked. LAFC nearly doubled Seattle’s shot total, and probably should have scored more than the four they ended up with. Will Bradley look to continue the press against Orlando, or will he ease off the press a bit to open up space in behind for Rossi and Rodríguez to run into? This game will be played on LAFC’s terms. Whether or not Orlando can beat them at it remains to be seen.
Prediction: LAFC wins 3-1.
San Jose Earthquakes vs Minnesota United
Saturday, August 1 | 7:00 PM Central | ESPN 2, ESPN Deportes
Why San Jose will win: Nothing has changed about how Matías Almeyda wants his side to play. They’re just doing it better. They still man mark relentlessly. They still funnel a lot of their attack through their fullbacks. They’ve just finally started scoring goals when it counts. Magnus Eriksson has been a huge piece of that. His two penalties against Salt Lake were important, but more important has been his passing from the no. 10 role. He pops up on either wing to find space, and has been impressive with his passing into the box.
Why Minnesota will win: They faced a different type of opponent in the Crew. Against Columbus’s ball dominant midfield, Minnesota was content to cede possession, keeping only 35.5% of the possession. Instead of controlling the ball, manager Adrian Heath used Hassani Dotson to man-mark Nagbe and keep him from moving the ball forward. Ján Greguš pinched inside to pressure Artur, and Minnesota really looked comfortable after taking an early lead. They didn’t have the ball and didn’t need it, frustrating the Crew until a late penalty got them back into the game.
San Jose won’t play the same way. Minnesota will need to be more proactive. So far, José Aja has been able to fill in admirably for Ike Opara, letting Romain Métanire push forward and act as a focal point for the attack. Métanire has been one of the better attacking players in the tournament, the only defender with a g+ score high enough to make the top ten. If he’s healthy enough to start, he could be the difference in this one.
Prediction: Minnesota win 2-1.
NYCFC vs Portland Timbers
Saturday, August 1 | 9:30 PM Central | FS1, Fox Deportes, TUDN
Why NYCFC will win: Portland are pretty good in possession, but they’re even better when they have space to counter. Against Toronto, NYCFC got an early lead and were able to put numbers behind the ball. Was this just because of the early lead, or was that how Ronny Deila intended to set up all along? Saturday will give us an idea. If NYCFC opt to defend first and try to win their battles in midfield before transitioning quickly, they could make things difficult for Portland.
Why Portland will win: While have really, really good passers in midfield, breaking down a well-organized defense isn’t their strength. Against Cincinnati’s ultra-bunker, Portland resorted to crossing the ball 40 times. They got some good looks from it, and crossing isn’t always bad, but having lots of possession on the edge of the box definitely is not their preferred way to play.
With Diego Chará as a destroyer in midfield, look for Portland to try to capitalize on moments when NYCFC push forward. They’ll look to win their 50/50s high up in midfield and play the ball to Yimmi Chará and Sebastián Blanco to let them run at defenders. If they can catch NYCFC in possession, they’ll be much happier than if they are asked to break down an 11 man wall for 90 minutes.
Prediction: Portland wins 1-0.