By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jul 29, 2020) US Soccer Players - California is the most exciting state for MLS soccer. That much is clear through the completion of the Round of 16. LAFC has the most goals in the MLS is Back tournament with 15 while San Jose is in 2nd-place with 11. Even the LA Galaxy, unceremoniously crashing out in the group stage, is intriguing due to its many problems.
The MLS Is Back tournament has produced a rather enjoyable viewing experience, with upsets, failures, clutch goals, and intense moments of goalkeeping all adding joy to an otherwise miserable summer. It has been the California teams adding spice and passion to the tournament. The only downside is that if LAFC and San Jose eventually meet, it will be in a semifinal and not the final.
Through four games at MLS is Back, LAFC has shown that they're the top team in the league. Even without league MVP Carlos Vela, LAFC is filling the nets at an astonishingly high rate. LAFC has scored 15 goals en route to the quarterfinals. Diego Rossi has scored seven goals alone while the club found yet another viable attacking option in Bradley Wright-Phillips. LAFC is showing the ultimate in team play without Vela, but it must prove it can win a title without him. If that is the case, LAFC must prove to itself it can succeed without one of the league's best talents. That means a run at the final.
2. Sporting KC
It took half of the 2019 season for Sporting KC to collapse and fall down toward the bottom of these rankings. It took less time for the club to climb back up as last year looks like a mirage. Alan Pulido has been worth his transfer but it has been contributions from others like Johnny Russell, Gerso Fernandez, and Khiry Shelton that has Sporting KC dangerous going forward. Sporting KC survived a scare against Vancouver in the Round of 16. That proved the club knows how to win a difficult and tight game in the knockout rounds.
3. San Jose Earthquakes
If not for LAFC, San Jose would be the most exciting team in MLS. If the last few weeks have shown anything, that would be it. Chris Wondolowski has become a super-sub, scoring clutch goals off the bench. It's been a true team effort. Players like Magnus Eriksson, Shea Salinas, Andres Rios, and Vako have contributed with goals. The team's confidence in itself was clear in the 4-3 comeback win over Vancouver. San Jose will get another crack at Minnesota in the quarterfinals. It will be a far different match than the Loons' 5-2 win from back in March as this Quakes team is a completely different one four months later.
4. Philadelphia Union
Philadelphia's play has been solid, if not spectacular. The Union has lived up to its billing as preseason contenders with its strong play. Philadelphia has not yet overwhelmed an opponent with goals but has done the right things in the back and converted its scoring chances. Philadelphia can be a frustrating opponent as Revs coach Bruce Arena can attest to. Arena saw red following the match against the Union after confronting the officials. That frustration from the rival is something that the Union could cause others to feel once the season resumes.
5. Portland Timbers
For nearly four games, Portland was doing everything right. Portland tripped up both the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, then overcame a deficit against LAFC to win Group F in the MLS is Back tournament. Portland broke through a pesky FC Cincinnati defense and held a late lead before a goalkeeping mistake cost the club a penalty kick, the lead, and almost the spot int he quarterfinals. Portland survived though, winning on penalties. If the club can move past that, Portland could make a run in this tournament. The team is playing the way it should have toward the end of last season. This kind of play at home during a normal campaign would lead to the Timbers being not only competitive, but contenders to win the Western Conference.
6. Minnesota United FC
With the whole league enamored by Columbus and eyeing a mouthwatering Columbus vs San Jose quarterfinal, it was Minnesota United who spoiled the party. Minnesota was the only team out of the four Columbus faced that was able to score a goal against the Crew. Minnesota's problem a year ago, particularly down the stretch, was scoring goals. The Loons were shut out in four of their last eight regular season games a year ago. This season, they've been held scoreless just once, against Real Salt Lake in the group stage, scoring 13 goals in six official matches this year. Minnesota beat the Quakes 5-2 in March, so the club must be prepared to run up and down the field for 90 minutes in the quarterfinal.
7. Seattle Sounders
The Sounders get a bit of a higher ranking as defending MLS champions. That doesn't mean that they looked great in three of their four MLS is Back matches. Seattle tore apart Vancouver in a must-win match. They looked like the reigning MLS champion. The rest of the time was a struggle. In spurts against LAFC, Seattle looked strong. Ultimately, the backline let them down. Seattle will fight in the postseason should they get the chance, but LAFC will loom.
8. Orlando City
Perhaps it's Oscar Pareja who took over as coach before the season. Or maybe Orlando is taking its status host seriously. Whatever the reason, Orlando finally looks like a playoff team. Orlando has yet to lose in the tournament, grinding out three wins and a draw. More than the results is how Orlando has looked. The team's passing has improved significantly from last season. They're playing with purpose and confidence. Orlando now faces its most difficult test yet with LAFC awaiting in the quarterfinal round. If Orlando can get past that juggernaut, the club could have the confidence to win this whole thing.
9. Columbus Crew
The secret is out. Columbus is an Eastern Conference contender after all. The way the tournament ended for the Crew was a letdown, sure. However, the club did so many good things that this can hardly be considered a disappointment. Columbus was dreadful at the start of the 2019 season before quietly pieced together a 5-2-6 record. That set the foundation for 2020. They built on that in this tournament. Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelayaran are dynamic players. Gyasi Zardes remains a capable scorer. Columbus will be a force during the rest of 2020.
10. New York City FC
NYCFC went from supreme disappointment to pleasant surprise once the club hit the knockout stage. That NYCFC was even in the knockout round was surprising. The LA Galaxy's late penalty kick against Houston proved to be NYCFC's saving grace as it kept Houston out and sent NYCFC to the knockout round. NYCFC was down Heber, Maxi Moralez, and Alexandru Mitrita with all dealing with injuries during the tournament. Against Toronto FC, NYCFC looked every bit as dangerous as it should have looked before the start of the year. Now the trick is for the club to follow that up in the quarterfinals.
11. New England Revolution
The Revs were about as strong as advertised. The defense was as solid as any Bruce Arena team's defense would be. The problem the club had was scoring goals. Gustavo Bou was lively but needs to do better with his chances. New England will be difficult to beat once the season resumes. Whether the Revs become a contender depends on how regularly they score goals.
12. Real Salt Lake
After a decent showing in the group stage, RSL disappointed on so many levels in the 5-2 loss to San Jose in the round of 16. First, the defense was lost. The club did well to come back and equalize quickly after San Jose opened the scoring but could not overcome the same adversity in the second-half. San Jose scored four goals and RSL had no answer. Worse, RSL veteran Kyle Beckerman showed a complete lack of class and terrible sportsmanship when he kicked the ball into the back of referee Drew Fischer.
13. Toronto FC
No team gave a more pedestrian effort in the knockout round than Toronto. For a team that was playing for the MLS Cup just one year ago, Toronto FC's output was rather poor. The come-from-ahead draw against DC United was inexcusable. The way the club handled the knockout stage was worse. This team knows how to play in knockout stages and knows how to win close and tight elimination matches. That was not evident against NYCFC. The touch was poor as the team looked lost and lacking ideas going forward. Against NYCFC, they looked much better when Jozy Altidore was on the field. So perhaps a healthy Altidore and a fit Ayo Akinola will help get the team back to playing the way it did in 2019.
14. Vancouver Whitecaps
Thomas Hasal might go back to being the third-string goalkeeper once the season resumes, but he became a hero in this tournament. Forced into action due to injury and bereavement, Hasal looked like a seasoned international goalkeeper in the knockout round match against Sporting KC. He kept a clean sheet all the way to penalties. While the Whitecaps fell, Hasal became an instant fan favorite. That's the big takeaway for Vancouver fans, the potential for unlikely greatness even if it doesn't end up with a win.
15. FC Cincinnati
It was all there for the taking. A third consecutive victory, respect for its fledgling team and new manager Jaap Stam, and a spot in the quarterfinals. FC Cincinnati striker Jurgen Locaida, who minutes earlier had equalized against Portland in a Round of 16 match, had the potential match-winner fall to his feet. Instead, a miss in front of a gaping net sent the game to penalties. It was a surprising scenario all around for an underrated team coming into the tournament. Losing 4-0 to Columbus to open the group seemed to tell Cincinnati's story. Now? This club looked competent for most of this tournament, and that's a major victory.
16. Montreal Impact
Thierry Henry's first test as Montreal coach was fairly successful. The club was not favored to do much, but they got out of a group that featured more seasoned teams. Montreal's must-win over DC United to advance proved a point. They ran into some bad luck against a suddenly-strong Orlando City in the round of 16, but no team outclassed them. The loss to Toronto was disappointing, but under Henry Montreal has the look of an Eastern Conference contender.
17. Atlanta United
Possibly the biggest disappointment of MLS is Back, Atlanta failed to score a single goal in all three of its matches. That left them the only team that failed to find the back of the net during the tournament. Atlanta also became the first team to sack its coach this season. Obviously, Atlanta did not overcome the loss of star striker Josef Martinez. Still, there should have been enough quality left behind to score at least once. If nothing else, though, Atlanta did pass the torch as top Eastern Conference contender to Columbus.
18. DC United
Scoring was the issue coming into the tournament. Even with Ola Kamara in tow, this club seemed to be lacking some attacking prowess. Federico Higuaín scored two of DC United's three tournament goals, and both came as a second-half substitute. If there is any positive, it is DC United's fighting spirit. The club overcame deficits in its first two matches to come away with draws. The lack of goal scoring was ultimately too much to overcome. That will hamper this team whenever it returns to play.
19. LA Galaxy
The LA Galaxy continues to find new ways to disappoint. This entire tournament was one letdown after another. From Chicharito's early struggles against Portland and subsequent tournament-ending injury to the missed chance against Houston that would have won the match, the Galaxy's experience is a forgettable one. This club is not just reeling from a poor tournament showing. The Galaxy's problems run deep. They'll win some games because of players like Chicharito, Jonathan Dos Santos, and Cristian Pavon. It will take more to get back to dominating the Western Conference.
20. Houston Dynamo
Houston had a dynamic opening match, opening up a 3-1 lead against LAFC before settling for a 3-3 draw. Playing well against the high-octane LAFC squad was encouraging, but the club's tournament finish was an utter disappointment. Houston could not hold onto a lead against the other LA team. They gave away a late penalty and should have lost had the Galaxy not squandered an excellent scoring chance in stoppage time. Houston has much work to do. No surprise given a new coach, roster turnover, and the lack of time the team has had to grow as a unit. Once this team figures out its defensive issues and gains some confidence from victories, things will improve. This team is already headed in the right direction, even if there are some bumps along the way.
21. Colorado Rapids
After a strong finish to the 2019 season and an impressive opening two games of the 2020 season, Colorado appeared like it was ready to breakthrough. Instead, Colorado broke down. The Rapids were a bit unfortunate to be on the wrong end of some officiating decisions against Sporting KC. That left them with 10 men and having to defend a penalty, but the club did not handle adversity well at all. Still, Colorado showed some grit in finishing its tournament participation with a 2-2 draw against Minnesota. The draw shows that, while the club is still far from contending for a playoff spot, perhaps the distance is not as cavernous as the results would appear to indicate.
22. New York Red Bulls
The opener was a great evening for New York as the Red Bulls dispatched rivals Atlanta United. That proved to be the lone highlight of their tournament. New York's talent void seemed amplified in Orlando. With former fixtures Bradley Wright-Phillips scoring for LAFC and goalkeeper Luis Robles manning the nets with Inter Miami, this team has lost a lot of its identity and has done little to replace it. Kaku is the club's lone Designated Player. That inexplicable shortage of talent will keep it from competing for a postseason spot.
23. Chicago Fire
Chicago had a bit of an adverse situation, moving groups to make up for the loss of Dallas and Nashville. Chicago was the only team to play teams from the opposing conference during the group stage. They overcame that to beat MLS Cup holders Seattle in their group stage opener. That only made the disappointment of its last two group games much harder to take. Losing to San Jose was one thing. Falling to a Vancouver team that limped to the group stage finale was a major disappointment. Perhaps that win over Seattle was a fluke for this struggling side.
24. Inter Miami
Never before has an MLS team lost its first five games. Inter Miami went 0-for-2 in the first two weeks of the season and followed that up with an 0-for-3 during the MLS Is Back tournament. How terrible is that statistic? Consider all of the horrible expansion teams that have played in MLS. Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake's 2005 teams, Toronto FC's 2006 team, FC Cincinnati's 2019 side. Inter Miami has them all beat. However, none of the games have been lopsided losses. Inter Miami lost two games by 1-0 and two more by 2-1. If this season does continue on the other side of this tournament, Inter Miami surely will finish a better and more polished side than any of those other ghastly first-year outfits.
No Ranking: FC Dallas
FC Dallas was unable to participate in the tournament due to positive Covid-19 tests amongst its squad. It would have been interesting to see how this squad would have matched up against Seattle, Vancouver, and San Jose in its group. Instead, we just don't know. Since Dallas hasn't played since the first week of March, we relegated the club out of the rankings.
No Ranking: Nashville SC
Same as above, only replace FC Dallas with Nashville SC. However, not playing in this tournament was much more damaging to Nashville SC. They could've used this as an opportunity to bond with one another and grow as a unit.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Jeremy Reper - ISIPhotos.com