After 36 games, 99 goals scored, and—surprisingly in the Central Florida climate—only two weather delays, the MLS Is Back Tournament now rolls into the knockout stage. No longer is it about getting out of the group, and adding to your regular season points total; now it’s a sprint to the final, a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League, and a hefty purse of bonus money for the winning team.
My theory over the years is that the first knockout game is really just an extension of the group stage: teams are still operating on short rest, there’s still a jumble of matchups, and the final still feels far away. But once you’re past that, it all changes: now it’s a “quarter-final”, you’re on more full rest, and all of a sudden that hotel that’s been full of players from other teams seems a little more quiet. So, who can survive and advance?
Orlando City SC vs Montreal Impact (Sat, 8pm ET, ESPN2)
The home team in this tournament has been one of the pleasant surprises of MLS Is Back so far: Orlando, under new coach Oscar Pareja, got an opening night win with a 97th minute goal vs Miami before beating New York City and drawing Philadelphia, all while young winger Chris Mueller is generating momentum to be a part of the US Men’s National Team.
Montreal has long been the ultimate unknown team in MLS: not just that their French Canadian home means they get little coverage in English-language American sports media, but we still don’t know how good legendary player Thierry Henry is as a head coach, and his roster is stacked with equally unknown quality. That’s what makes the Impact so dangerous.
Philadelphia Union vs New England Revolution (Sat, 10:30pm ET, ESPN2)
Philly have been another really exciting team to watch so far at this tournament: they’ve invested in their academy and produced four homegrown players who have seen minutes, buttressed by quality veterans and the ultimate MLS in “supersub” Illsinho, and led by impossible-not-to-root-for coach Jim Curtin.
For the Revs meanwhile, you can talk about a defense that’s allowed just one goal in three games, an attack led by club-record signing Gustavo Bou (pronounced “bow”), but their ultimate trump card is the man on the sideline: Bruce Arena. Arguably the greatest coach in American soccer history, Arena has won five MLS Cups in his career, to say nothing of NCAA titles, CONCACAF Gold Cups…16 trophies in total from knockout tournaments like this. Safe to say he knows how to coach a team through a bracket.
Toronto FC vs New York City FC (Sun 8:30pm ET, FS1)
Toronto, the Eastern Conference Champions in three of the last four seasons, have played largely without three starters due to injury and fitness concerns; had delays and uncertainty related to travel and “false positive” COVID-19 tests; and blew a two-goal lead in the final minutes against a DC United team that was down a man after a red card. But they’ve steadied the ship and feature maybe the breakout star of the tournament: 20-year-old Ayo Akinola, who has scored five goals filling in for longtime USMNT star Jozy Altidore.
New York City had perhaps the most eventful pathway into the knockout stage: a 1-0 win over Inter Miami on Monday morning put them in contention to advance as a third-place finisher, but they had to wait until the 91st minute of Thursday night’s Houston-LA Galaxy game to know for sure they’d be advancing. There’s also a chance for revenge for NYC: they’ve been knocked out of the playoffs twice in recent years by Toronto, most recently just last October.
Sporting Kansas City vs Vancouver Whitecaps (Sun 11pm ET, FS1)
When the pandemic shut down the MLS regular season in March, Sporting KC was one of the most interesting teams in the league: coming off their worst season in a decade in 2019, they’d overhauled their roster and impressively won their first two games. After blowing a lead in the final minutes of their opener in Orlando, Sporting coolly won their next two games, and forward Alan Pulido is a candidate for MLS Newcomer of the Year.
Vancouver are the unlikeliest of the teams to made the knockout stage: without one third of their roster in Orlando—due to injury, or health and family concerns amidst COVID-19—including all of their forwards; having to borrow a backup goalkeeper from Montreal when their starting broke his finger; and having to pick up the pieces from a late collapse in a 4-3 loss vs San Jose, the Whitecaps then overcame a 90 minute lightning delay to beat Chicago on the final day of the group stage and advance. Are they the Cinderella of MLS Is Back? Or will their carriage be a pumpkin again when midnight strikes on Sunday night?
San Jose Earthquakes vs Real Salt Lake (Mon, 8:30pm ET, FS1)
The Quakes have been another pleasant surprise at MLS Is Back, engineering one of the best comebacks in recent MLS seasons: down 3-1 with 20 minutes left vs Vancouver, they charged back with a winning goal in the 98th minute to take it 4-3. They’ve playing with confidence, a strong team spirit, a high-energy high-intensity style that’s difficult to play against, and they’re bringing MLS career scoring leader Chris Wondolowski off the bench as a closer.
RSL meanwhile opened up the tournament with a 2-0 win over rivals Colorado, before being shut out their final two games and sneaking into the knockout stage as one of the third-place group finishers. We also didn’t think much of the RSL team that snuck into the playoffs on the final day two years ago, and with many of the same players as they have now, shocking the league with a 3-2 upset win at LAFC. Also note the all-time series history between these teams: a perfectly even 11 wins for each, with 11 ties.
Seattle Sounders vs Los Angeles FC (Mon, 11pm ET, FS1)
The defending MLS Cup Champion Sounders are following a familiar script in Orlando: a slow start put them on the brink of elimination, before their three stars—Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, and Jordan Morris—helped them roar to life by scoring goals in their final game to beat Vancouver and send them through. Just like when they came from the basement of the Western Conference to end up MLS Cup Champions the first time, in 2016.
When LAFC are in gear, there’s no team better right now in MLS: even without reigning MVP Carlos Vela, they dropped six goals on crosstown rivals LA Galaxy, stormed back from two goals down to draw Houston in their opener, and turned around a deficit in the blink of an eye to take the lead on Portland Thursday night. The issue? That they had to come back vs Houston, that they trailed twice vs the Galaxy, and that they conceded a late tying goal vs Portland that dropped them back into the group runner-up spot and this matching vs Seattle.
Why is this the best game of the Round of 16? It’s a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Final, when Seattle came back from a goal down to shock LAFC, their home fans, and all of MLS to continue their march towards last year’s title. LAFC will be out for revenge.
Columbus Crew vs Minnesota United (Tues, 8pm ET, ESPN)
The Crew were the only team to pull off a perfect group stage at the MLS Is Back Tournament: three wins in three games, seven goals scored, and no goals allowed. Their 4-0 dismantling of Ohio-rivals Cincinnati was followed up by controlled, classy wins over the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United. They have a defined style, players who can execute it, and a confidence that they can fly home from Orlando with a trophy.
This might have been a matchup of the top teams in the Eastern and Western Conference standings, before Minnesota tripped up and drew with already-eliminated Colorado in their final group stage game. The Loons had a flair for the dramatic in their opener, scoring twice in stoppage time to come back and beat Sporting KC, but even though they finished out with ties against RSL and the Rapids, they still haven’t been beaten in 2020. Oh, and former Crew star Ethan Finlay is coming off a two-goal game for Minnesota and would love to knockout the team that traded him away in 2017.
Portland Timbers vs FC Cincinnati (Tues, 10:30pm ET, ESPN)
After a sluggish start to the 2020 season back in the spring, the Timbers have come to life at the MLS Is Back Tournament: 2-1 wins vs the LA Galaxy and Houston, followed up by going toe-to-toe in a 2-2 draw with LAFC to win the group. Jeremy Ebobisse was the only player to score in all three games of the group stage, and they look every bit as tough to play against as the team that won the Western Conference title two seasons ago.
FC Cincinnati, coming off one of the worst seasons an expansion team has ever had in MLS last year, didn’t seem like they were getting any better with a 4-0 loss to rivals Columbus in their opener in Orlando. But a “circle the wagons” approach to defending, and two special moments from attacking players, delivered them shocking wins over Atlanta and the New York Red Bulls, and an even more shocking place in the Round of 16. What’s more surprising? The only previous meeting between these teams a year ago was a 3-0 win for Cincinnati.