It’s been wild. It’s been messy. It’s had moments of “what the hell were you thinking” insanity mixed in with moments of undeniable quality. It’s had refereeing controversies, upset victories, predictable thrashings, and inspiring displays. The MLS is Back group stage encapsulated everything we’ve come to love (and hate) about this league. And now, it’s on to the knockout rounds.
26 teams entered. 24 teams competed. And now, 16 remain.
Tonight, the knockout round for the MLS is Back Tournament begins. On the line is a berth to the 2021 Concacaf Champions League and a $1.1 million prize pot. It’s been a wildly unpredictable tournament thus far. That won’t stop anytime soon. Nonetheless, here’s an attempt to predict it.
Orlando City SC vs Montreal Impact
Saturday, July 25 | 7:00 PM Central | ESPN 2
Why Orlando will win: Head coach Óscar Pareja quickly drilled into this team the importance of winning 50/50 balls. They’ve also gotten excellent production from their wide players. Nani has the fourth highest expected assists total during the tournament, and Chris Mueller has finally added consistent end product to his game; his goals added (g+) total is fourth best in the tournament, and he scored three goals in the group stage. Orlando’s forwards are still inconsistent (Dom Dwyer still hasn’t been worth the investment), but they’re a strong defensive unit with overall good passers of the ball. In Ruan and João Moutinho they have two of the best attacking fullbacks in the league. This is a much, much better Orlando side than we’ve seen in years.
Why Montreal will win: Under the management of Thierry Henry, the Impact have taken a surprisingly pragmatic approach. Henry has mostly used a 5-3-2 formation. Their midfield has been really productive. Designated player Saphir Taïder has been one of the better passers in the tournament, also chipping in three goals. Former Barcelona prodigy Bojan has been effective in a free role behind the forwards. Winger Romel Quioto has made an instant impact since joining from Houston in the offseason, scoring twice in five matches. It’s still a work in progress for Montreal, but the signs of improvement are clear and obvious.
Prediction: It’s hard not to go with one of the more exciting attacking outfits in the league. Orlando City wins this one, 3-1.
Philadelphia Union vs New England Revolution
Saturday, July 25 | 7:00 PM Central | ESPN 2
Why Philadelphia will win: The Union were a popular pre-tournament pick to win it all. I had them finishing second. But they haven’t created chances consistently enough. They have the worst expected goals total in the tournament. However, they have a supremely effective midfield. José Martínez or Warren Creavalle will sit at the base of a diamond breaking up play and shielding the back four. Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro will fill the more box-to-box roles, covering every blade of grass on the pitch and shuttling the ball between defense and attack. 19-year-old Brendan Aaronson, the no. 10, hasn’t lit the tournament on fire, but is one of the more talented young players in the league, capable of a moment of brilliance. On top of that, they play sound defense and have a match winning goalkeeper in Andre Blake. The pieces are there.
Why New England will win: Having Bruce Arena on the sideline doesn’t hurt their chances. Arguably the greatest manager in MLS history, Arena improved the team drastically after taking the job last summer. He immediately solidified the defense, and it’s shown in the tournament. New England have the third best xGA (expected goals against) in the competition. Midfielder Carles Gil has been the driving force behind their attack, and while striker Adam Buksa hasn’t quite found the final product, he’s looked close on multiple occasions. The squad has enough talent scattered throughout the roster to give Arena options to work with. The tactical acumen is there. And in a knockout competition, it’s hard to bet against the experience of Bruce Arena.
Prediction: Never bet against Bruce Arena in a knockout match. New England win this on 2-1.
Toronto FC vs New York City FC
Sunday, July 26 | 7:30 PM Central | FS1
Why Toronto will win: For starters, they’re one of the best passing teams in the league, with Michael Bradley pulling the strings from deep. At 32, he’s still an elite no. 6 in MLS. Ahead of him, Alejandro Pozuelo is electric every time he touches the ball, capable of changing the game with a single touch. They’ve had issues with an aging centerback corps, though, and look defensively frail defending on the break. Jozy Altidore still isn’t fully fit, and that would normally hamstring the team (no pun intended). Enter Ayo Akinola. The 20-year-old striker has been the breakout player of the tournament. He leads the competition in goals (5) and expected goals (3.18), and has really good movement for such a young player. He’ll look to find space off the back shoulder of the defender and run the channels in behind. With Pozuelo and Bradley able to get him the ball in space, it’s a dangerous combination.
Why NYCFC will win: If he’s able to play in this one, Héber could be the difference. The Brazilian striker has been one of the best finishers since entering the league in 2019, and makes New York’s attack much more dangerous. Fullbacks Anton Tinnerholm and Rónald Matarrita are two of the better attacking fullbacks in the league, but could get pinned back by Toronto’s wingers. This likely will turn into a battle in central midfield. If Alexander Ring and James Sands can win their 50/50 battles against Bradley and Marky Delgado, they could cause problems.
Prediction: I honestly just don’t think NYCFC are that good. They barely beat a really bad Miami side and lost their other two group games. Toronto, for all their issues, are still a really good side. TFC takes this one, 3-0.
Sporting Kansas City vs Vancouver Whitecaps
Sunday, July 26 | 10:00 PM Central | FS1
Why Sporting KC will win: For starters, they have Alan Pulido. The Mexican international has been one of the best players in the league this season. When he’s not scoring, he’s assisting. His touch on the ball is clean, and he’s a great playmaker in addition to being a poacher. They’ve also added Gadi Kinda in midfield, and his passing and energy has revitalized a corps of players that needed a boost. On the wings, Johnny Russell is lethal in 1v1 situations, and Khiry Shelton has finally added consistent end product to an otherwise promising skill set. Defensively, they’re not as bad as they were last year, but still look shaky, especially when defending the counter. But overall, this SKC side looks like one of the better attacking teams in the league, and that will always make them a tough opponent.
Why Vancouver will win: A win in this one would be down to guts, luck and 90 minutes of good defending. Vancouver were always an underdog in this tournament. They left five of their best players at home. It took an improbable win over a dreadful Chicago Fire side to squeeze them out of the group stage. Expect them to defend with 11 men and look to get the ball to Yordy Reyna on the counter. Who knows? Crazier things have happened.
Prediction: Sporting KC is really good. Vancouver? Not so much. SKC cruises to a 4-0 win. (My confidence in this prediction probably guarantees that Vancouver gets the upset, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take).
San Jose Earthquakes vs Real Salt Lake
Monday, July 27 | 7:30 PM Central | FS1
Why San Jose will win: Head coach Matías Almeyda has implemented a unique man-marking system, and it’s a bear to play against. The Quakes struggled to execute first few matches of the tournament, but as they find midseason fitness, they’ll be able to press more effectively for 90 minutes. Jackson Yueill is the key to how they run their offense. His expected pass score leads midfielders in the middle third of the pitch, and he’ll look to quickly turn and spray the ball into space. The return of Judson proved to be a huge boost, solidifying their defense and giving the rest of midfield a bit more freedom going forward. They also have Chris Wondowlowski, MLS’s all-time leading goalscorer, looking for a trophy in what will likely be his final season.
Why RSL will win: They have an ultra-mobile forward in Douglas Martínez, and winger Corey Baird is always a danger on the dribble. However, Damir Kreilach has been injured, and he’s a crucial piece of their midfield. They have the pieces to force San Jose into mistakes, but haven’t yet shown a clear plan to create consistent chances.
Prediction: San Jose win one of the uglier games of the round 1-0.
Seattle Sounders vs LAFC
Monday, July 27 | 10:00 PM Central | FS1
Why the Sounders will win: The Sounders have one of the most defined tactical identities in the league. They play a 4-2-3-1. They like to have the ball, but they’re just as content sitting a little deeper, inviting their opponents to push up, and then hitting on the counter. They can beat you in a number of ways, but their danger on the break is a big strength against LAFC’s possession-based attack. They’ll utilize Nico Lodeiro’s elite playmaking abilities to draw defenders in before splitting defenders with balls into space. In Raúl Ruidíaz, the Sounders have one of the league’s best finishers, who always seems to show up in big games. And they have Jordan Morris, maybe the fastest player in the league, in career-best form with a real claim to be the tournament MVP thus far. The Sounders have already shown they can handle LAFC in tournament play, and they won’t change their gameplan based on their opponent.
Why LAFC will win: Even sans Carlos Vela, LAFC have maybe the best attack in the league. Diego Rossi is constantly improving, Brian Rodríguez is always dangerous (even if the end product often goes missing), and Bradley Wright-Phillips is an elite finisher on a hot streak. Factor in the league’s best midfield trio of Eduard Atuesta, Latif Blessing and Mark-Anthony Kaye, and you have a recipe for goals. On the other hand, they sent their best defender to Nashville and never replaced him, but do you really need to defend if you can score four or five goals at will?
Prediction: This is the juiciest matchup of the round. Both teams can score. Both teams have question marks on defense. Anything less than a barnburner would be a letdown. LAFC take this one, 4-3.
Columbus Crew vs Minnesota United
Tuesday, July 27 | 7:00 PM Central | ESPN
Why Columbus will win: They’re the best overall team in the league for my money. Under Caleb Porter, the Crew will control possession and pull their opponents out of their defensive shell before splitting them open with a killer pass. Darlington Nagbe is key to this. You can’t give him space; he’ll pick you apart. You can’t press him; he’ll play out of pressure with one or two touches and then pick you apart. Paired with Artur on the “2 line” of a 4-2-3-1, this midfield is capable of passing their way through anything. Ahead of them, Lucas Zelarayán is a game changing no. 10, and Gyasi Zardes is really clever with the timing of his runs into the box. This team is two deep at every position and have a tactical identity perfectly suited to their personell.
Why Minnesota will win: Romain Métanire is arguably the best right back in the league. There were questions about how much he’d be able to push forward with Ike Opara missing the tournament, but he’s steadily had more of an impact in the final third. His xPass score is the second best of the tournament. That’s impressive for a fullback. So far, Minnesota haven’t been punished when he pushes forward, but they also haven’t played a team as dangerous as Columbus. If Métanire is pinned back, Ethan Finlay will have to pick up the slack out wide. Centrally, Ján Greguš is one of the more underrated midfielders in the league, with the defensive bite to play box-to-box, but the ability to spray diagonals with the best of them. The battle between he and Darlington Nagbe will be one to watch.
Prediction: The Crew are just too good to go out this early. There will be space for them to exploit, and they don’t need much of a chance to score. Columbus wins 2-0.
Portland Timbers vs FC Cincinnati
Tuesday, July 27 | 9:30 PM Central | ESPN
Why Portland will win: The Timbers will be up against a packed defense, but luckily they have the personnel to handle it. Diego Valeri, although towards the end of his career, is an all-time great playmaker in this league. Sebastian Blanco has been given more of a central role this season, and the shift has been good for him. With a midfield destroyer behind them like Diego Chará, Valeri and Blanco can take more risks positionally knowing that Chará can clean up the mess. Filipe Mora hasn’t proven to be the clinical finisher they needed, but young American striker Jeremy Ebobisse has picked up a lot of the slack, scoring in all three group games. His finishing isn’t perfect, but he’s an intelligent player who’s aware of the space around him and can stretch the field vertically. Getting him space in the box will be key for Portland.
Why Cincinnati will win: Is throwing 11 men behind the ball and hoping your opponent makes a mistake a repeatable strategy? Manager Jaap Stam will hope it is. Cincinnati were historically bad at defending last year. They signed some big attacking pieces in the offseason, but it doesn’t appear to have significantly improved things on the other end. For instance, they shipped four goals to Columbus in their opener. They scraped to a 1-0 win over Atlanta, scoring with their lone shot on target despite playing with a man advantage for 60+ minutes. And they capitalized on a terrible mistake and an own goal to beat New York Red Bulls in their final group stage match. Are they good? Are they just lucky? Does it matter? On paper, they shouldn’t beat Portland, but that’s why you play the game, isn’t it? If they can sit in compact lines, limit space, and see what happens on the break, who knows what could happen?
Prediction: Portland is just better. That doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to win, but I like to think that the better team usually wins. Timbers win 2-0.